Inventing the economic industry of middle age

In the 1920s, an entire industry devoted to denying age and inviting youth emerged among the nation's nearly 80 million baby boomers. The "Midlife Industrial Complex," as author Patricia Cohen describes it, created a culture that pressures middle-aged adults to pass as young.

Kai Ryssdal: You can quibble about the exact point where middle age begins -- people on the younger side want to push it back, people on the older side want to hang onto it for a while -- but the Census Bureau just does with the cold hard numbers. There are, in this country, 81.5 million people between the ages of 45 and 64. And when you get that many people in one demographic, with as much purchasing power as they have, it's like printing money. And so over the years, an entire industry has been built with this one idea in mind: 'Man, I wish I looked younger.'

Patricia Cohen reports for the New York Times. She's also the author of "In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age." Good to have you with us.

Patricia Cohen: Thank you.

Ryssdal: You write about -- for our purposes on this show -- you write about this thing called the "midlife industrial complex." What does that mean? It sounds so ominous.

Cohen: Right, I know, it does. Of course, I cribbed that phrase from the famous military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned about, exactly. But I thought it was appropriate because the word "complex" seemed to apply in two senses. One, the economic: It's this kind of sprawling, trillion-dollar industry that has developed around middle age -- all kinds of beauty aids to middle age empowerment gurus constantly bombarding us about things that we should buy for middle age. But it also generates a complex in the emotional sense, like an insecurity complex, to make us feel bad about the normal signs of aging, as if there's something deviant or diseased about getting older.

Ryssdal: And you give a great example, actually, with Clairol, the shampoo and the hair people. You quote a 1943 ad, and I love this one. 1943, Clairol says: "Remember when rouge spelled hussy, when lipstick meant brazen, when nail polish branded you common?" And then they go on to say that basically nice women can color their hair as well. I just love that; it was great.

Cohen: Exactly. And you can see that exact same narrative line, that storyline, being told now about botox. In fact, I do a kind of case study of Juvederm, which is made by the same company that makes botox. They had two tennis stars that have become their spokeswomen, and one of the things they say is 'Well I used to be embarrassed about telling my friends, but now I'm proud to say that I use botox.' And this is the same way of kind of de-stigmatizing this, saying it's normal to get botox, just like you would get your teeth fixed if you had a problem.

Ryssdal: You actually pick up on what is a loaded, historical and racially tinged term as well: "passing." We are trying -- those of us in middle age, a lot of us -- are trying to pass as younger.

Cohen: Well, it was just one of the things that struck me. In any other context, "passing" -- whether you're black or if it was gays when they were in the military -- was either seen as justified in the sense that you lived in this repressive or discriminatory society, and so it was OK to fool the system to open opportunities that would not ordinarily be open to you. But when we're passing as young, we're congratulated as if we've accomplished some wonderful thing in fooling everybody that we're really younger than we are. And what I think that does is actually undermine middle age, because therefore, all the of the accomplishments of middle age -- which are looking good or being creative -- are instead credited to being younger.

Ryssdal: Patricia Cohen, her book is called "In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age." Thanks very much.

Cohen: Thank you.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, the most widely heard program on business and the economy in the country.


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