Why can’t you act your age?

Notes on the Mid-Life Conversations conference held on 13/14 September 2018


Once upon a time, adults were grown-ups, and children were little grown-ups.  Everyone knew  their place.  Just look at any family photograph taken up to – and even beyond – the mid-1900s. Nowadays, it’s not so simple.  It is often hard to tell mothers from daughters, and who are those “old” people cavorting on Greek rooftops – singing and dancing with gusto – in Mamma Mia 2?  Why, it’s the magnificent Meryl Streep (69) looking coy, reliving her youth and imagining herself to be 21 again[1].

Such thoughts fed into the first day of the “Mid-Life” Conversations conference, a two-day transdisciplinary event on health and wellbeing in middle age held at the Wellcome Centre on the Cultures and Environments of Health in Exeter.

Is “Mid-Life” a separate, discreet phase of life – like childhood or adolescence – or just part of the flux and dislocation of adult life? Is the ‘male menopause’ symbolic of a separate “Mid-Life” phase, or do men and women just have to get on with it, adjusting and renegotiating family roles as they go along?

Adulthood was seen as the evolutionary culmination of life when the term was adopted in the late 19th century. It was associated with maturity, responsibility and seriousness[2]. Family life was its ultimate expression, a life marked by clear, distinct and formal roles.  The 1950s was Its high watermark – its norms and expectations nourished by television. A high degree of conformity was expected but these roles began to loosen from the early 1960s, initially with greater freedoms for the younger generation – think Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (1967)[3].

At work, formal structures and practices have given way to greater informality and flexibility. Previously, work was seen as routine, coercive, even alienating.  The compensation: a ‘job for life’.  Today, work is often regarded as an opportunity for personal investment. For some, work is life and an arena where many “Mid-Life” issues are played out, including status and self-worth, health and relationships. A leading columnist recently acknowledged this when he wrote I can’t think of anything worse than not being involved in the world of work, of not being useful any more, of being forced to confront that slow march to the grave[4].

The paradox is that more freedom in family life and at work has resulted in more – not less – stress, and not in a good way. Any sense of fulfilment is balanced by greater insecurity and loss of control.  Secure, dull work has been replaced by insecure and sometimes more exciting work with potentially big financial rewards for the individual, though not perhaps for those on zero-hour contracts.

But, what is “Mid Life”? when does it begin? and how can it be negotiated?

“Mid-Life” has been described as the peak years of anxiety for practically everyone – characterised by an unexpected loss of balance on the precipice of a new phase of life[5]. The term first appeared in 1895.  Almost inevitably, the Victorians were to blame.   They relocated the ‘age problem’ from the older to the middle years by constantly emphasising that decline, disease and death awaits all on reaching “Mid-Life”, rather like our columnist 100 years or so later.

The French coined the term ‘male menopause’ 80 years earlier to denote the unease and restlessness in males when confronted with this reality, though they had to wait until 1903 for the first Harley Davidson to roll off the Milwaukee assembly line. And, although empirical evidence of any such “Mid-Life” ‘crisis’ is scant, strong social and psychological factors point to a cultural phenomenon. Even here, there are doubts about the validity of such a ‘crisis’, given that it is not experienced equally by all and is highly class- and gender-specific[6].

A skilled manual worker was in the prime of life by 35 before 1914.  A breadwinner at the peak of his physical and earning power. After 40, it was a different story. Life was marked by greater precariousness, declining physical powers, greater risk of accidents and unemployment, and children leaving home.  Was this role change a new phase or passage of life (“Mid-Life”), or part of the continuum of adulthood? Family memoirs of the time emphasise the continuum, showing the steady decline of the breadwinner into the seventh stage of man[7]. In 1974, the years between 37 and 42 were still identified as the peak years of anxiety, and the beginning of “Mid-Life”.  Now, however 60 is the new 40. Better health and wellbeing is matched by a determined effort to re-relocate the ‘age problem’ back to later life in a way that enables many of us to join Meryl Streep on her Greek rooftop.

Looking the part and feeling that spark of youth before the Second World War was another matter. George Orwell observed in the 1940s that the working classes age very much earlier because they accepted it earlier. He said that to look young after, say, thirty is largely a matter of wanting to do so[8].

Silent movie stars side-lined by the talkies certainly wanted to feel more youthful and look the part. They were prepared to undergo almost any pain to retain their allure, like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1954). So rigorous were her beauty treatments, they drew comparison with to the methods of Dracula[9]. Then, there was the famous doctor who insert[ed] monkey glands into millionaires to rejuvenate their vitality[10]. Serge Voronoff was a Russian surgeon famed for grafting monkey testicles onto the testicles of men in the 1920s and 30s.  Even Sherlock Holmes got in on the act[11].

Rejuvenation gained currency in the inter-war years, partly because of the legacy of death from the Great War and Spanish flu epidemic. While the rich pursued monkey glands in Paris and Vienna, the less affluent pursued other routes to prevent premature ageing.  These included hormone creams and beauty oils – Boots No 7 made its debut in 1935; electrotherapy; and, dietary supplements. The Overbeck rejuvenator (1924) was an electrotherapy device designed for the general public without the need for medical intervention[12]. Blackpool had its own Rejuvenator, which lit up the Blackpool mile in 1937.

War – and less-than-impressive results – were fatal to many of these efforts. The continuing quest for bodily improvement, health and perfection was not to be stopped.  It gained momentum in the 1950s and continued into the new century. Backed by scientific advance and greater prosperity, it sought to encourage, persuade and cajole as many people as possible to enjoy all the years that mark the most active period of life.

“Mid-Life” no longer means the start of the inexorable decline to the grave, unless you’re like Woody Allen, perpetually anxious. Now, it is more widely understood as a time of better health, wellbeing and opportunity. Greater prosperity and freedoms since 1945 have improved healthy life expectancy and ‘age-appropriate’ behaviour has been widely abandoned, along with the clothing!  Work – with its emphasis on the individual – is important, but not the whole answer, not least because its freedoms and rewards are not available to all. Interpersonal and family relationships are key to retaining a positive identity throughout the challenges of life.

While “Mid-Life” is associated with a dip in life satisfaction, the boost that being married gave to a person was especially noteworthy during middle age[13].  Divorce is strongly associated with long-term negative mental health and wellbeing. This underlines the value of support in helping negotiate new roles as family circumstances change, and the importance of making room for the evolving needs of individuals in a partnership.

The notion of a “Mid-Life” crisis is contested but is undeniable to many as matching their own experience.  Look at the agonies James Stewart goes through in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)[14] to realise his own worth. These Conversations on “Mid-Life” have illuminated an important time of change at a key passage of life, whether defined as a separate life stage or as part of the wider vicissitudes of adulthood.


This blog was written by: Dr Ray Earwicker, Honorary Research Fellow, Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health, University of Exeter

[1] Universal Pictures (2018) Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again directed by Ol Parker with Meryl Streep (69), Pierce Brosnan (65), Cher (72), Julie Walters (68) and others

[2] Mintz, S (2015) The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood

[3] United Artists (1967) The Graduate, directed by Mike Nichols with Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman

[4] Simon Kelner, Why the Fire generation chills me to the bone, i newspaper, 18 September 2018

[5] Sheehy, G. (1976) Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life

[6] Whitbourne, S.K (2010) The Search for Fulfilment

[7] Strange, J.M. (2015) Fatherhood and the British Working Class 1865-1914. The seventh stage of man “second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” As You Like It, Act 2 scene 7

[8] George Orwell (1941) The Art of Donald McGill in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume 2, pp 183-195.  Orwell was sceptical.  His view was ‘youth’s a stuff will not endure’.

[9] Paramount Pictures (1950) Sunset Boulevard directed by Billy Wilder with Gloria Swanson and William Holden.

[10] The line is from e. e. cummings.

[11] Arthur Conan Doyle (1923) The Adventures of the Creeping Man in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes

[12] Stark, J. F. (2014) ’Recharge My Exhausted Batteries’: Overbeck’s Rejuvenator, Patenting, and Public Medical Consumers, 1924-37 International Journal for the History of Medicine 58(4); 498-518

[13] Grover,S. Helliwell, J.F (2017) How’s Life At Home? Journal of Happiness Studies 10-1007/s10902-017-9941-3

[14] Liberty Films (1946) It’s A Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra, with James Stewart and Donna Reed