We are more accustomed to seeing the entry into middle age treated as a punch line or a cause for condolences. Despite admonishments that “50 is the new 30,” middle age continues to be used as a metaphor for decline or stasis. Having just completed a book about the history and culture of middle age, I found that the first question people asked me was, “When does it begin?” anxiously hoping to hear a number they hadn’t yet reached.
Elderly people who find middle age to be the most desirable period of life, however, are voicing what was a common sentiment in the 19th century, when the idea of a separate stage of development called “middle age” began to emerge. Although middle age may seem like a universal truth, it is actually as much of a manufactured creation as polyester or the rules of chess. And like all the other so-called stages into which we have divvied up the uninterrupted flow of life, middle age, too, is a cultural fiction, a story we tell about ourselves.
The story our great-great-great-grandparents told was that midlife was the prime of life. “Our powers are at the highest point of development,” The New York Times declared in 1881, “and our power of disciplining these powers should be at their best.”
Yes, yes, you think, bully for higher powers and all, but what about thickening waistlines, sagging skin, aching knees, and multiplying responsibilities for aging, ailing parents? Is there anyone past 40 who, at one point or other, hasn’t pushed aside qualms and pushed back the skin above their cheekbones to smooth out those deepening nasolabial folds? Gym addicts aside, when it comes to face and physique, middle age doesn’t have a chance.
The problem with the physical inventory of middle age, though, is that it inevitably emphasizes loss — the end of fertility, decreased stamina, the absence of youth. Middle age begins, one cultural critic declared, the moment you think of yourself as “not young.” The approach is the same as that taken by physicians and psychologists, who have defined wellness and happiness in terms of what was missing: health was an absence of illness; a well-adjusted psyche meant an absence of depression and dysfunction.
The most recent research on middle age, by contrast, has looked at gains as well as deficits. To identify the things that contribute to feeling fulfilled and purposeful, Carol Ryff, the director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, developed a list of questions to measure well-being and divided them into six broad categories: personal growth (having new experiences that challenge how you think about yourself); autonomy (having confidence in your opinions even if they are contrary to the general consensus); supportive social relationships; self-regard (liking most aspects of your personality); control of your life; and a sense of purpose.
The survey questionnaire was meant to capture more than the fleeting pleasures of a few beers. It was designed to gauge whether an individual was functioning at full capacity or flourishing. The ancient Greeks called it eudaimonia, and positive psychologists have adopted the term to refer to the kind of profound satisfaction and meaning one derives from raising children, training for an Olympic event, completing a college degree or helping your neighbors rebuild after a disaster. The search for positive experiences showed researchers that a narrow focus on disease and dysfunction had skewed perceptions of midlife. For example, previous research had found that middle-aged women tended to have higher rates of depression than men. What they neglected to note was that women also reported better relationships and more personal growth, which strengthened their psychological resilience.
By the same token, researchers found that while stress reaches a high point in middle age, so does confidence in one’s own abilities. By midlife, most people said they felt better equipped to screen out petty annoyances and disappointments and juggle career and family. “Youth is the period in which a man can be hopeless. The end of every episode is the end of the world,” G. K. Chesterton wrote. “But the power of hoping through everything, the knowledge that the soul survives its adventures, that great inspiration comes to the middle-aged.”
In fact, researchers discovered that those in their middle decades were the happiest. In the areas that mattered most — like feeling in control of their lives, having a sense of purpose and supportive social networks — the middle-aged scored highest on average.
For those whose glory days peaked in high school, middle age can never compete with homecoming senior year. But for many, it’s a relief to leave behind a miserable first job and the fear of not fitting in or having your biological clock run out.
So what are some perks of middle age you might consider the next time you start counting your brown age spots? Women, at least, could start with sex. One of the noticeable results of a nationwide survey on midlife was that middle-aged women happily reported increased control of their own sex lives. The anxiety-producing pressure from men had eased. They had fewer worries of contracting a sexually transmitted disease and about getting pregnant. Nancy Meyers’s 2003 film “Something’s Gotta Give” captured the sentiment in an exchange between the 50-plus lovers played by Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton. “What about birth control?” he asks. Her answer: “Menopause.”
Both sexes will find that their judgment, particularly in regard to financial matters and politics, reaches a high point in middle age. In a 2010 article for the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, economists who studied how different age groups handled 10 different financial transactions involving car, home equity and mortgage loans as well as credit cards found that people between 43 and 63 were best at sizing up the options and choosing well.
“Middle-age adults may be at a decision-making sweet spot,” they concluded.
The mix of experience and native ability often reaches a high point in the creative realm as well. Despite the media’s obsession with young talent, psychologists like Carl Jung and Erik Erikson maintained that middle age propelled individuals toward their greatest achievements. Consider, for instance, the difference between Beethoven’s First Symphony, written at 29, and the Ninth, composed in his late 40s and early 50s. Profound genius is midlife’s territory.
Countless writers, filmmakers, musicians, poets and painters have expounded on the artistic insight of midlife. “I’m glad I didn’t get a chance to make movies in my 20s or 30s because I was a very bad writer,” said Paul Haggis, who was in his 50s when he wrote screenplays for the Oscar-winning films “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash” (the latter he also directed).
Today, many can find some consolation in science, which has made it possible to overcome many of age’s once unavoidable limitations. Viagra has recharged the sex lives of middle-aged men. Botox and facial fillers can erase wrinkles. New medical procedures allow aging bodies to ski and surf.
Middle-aged baby boomers and Gen Xers have something else their forebears did not: more time. With longer life spans, those in midlife have decades to recoup losses and change direction. After all, 50 is 50. Be thankful for it.