The new insult: calling someone middle aged. Even — or especially — if they are
Hey, buddy, who you callin’ middle aged?
As those in the dreaded cohort know, the term is so pejorative it hits like a back spasm when you get off the couch:
You overhear a twentysomething colleague referring to you as “middle aged” — and the part of you that thought your cool sneakers were fooling people dies.
Your teenager mocks you for wearing a jacket when it’s 70 degrees, but then consoles you. “It’s OK, middle-aged moms are always cold.”
A saleswoman in the eyeglasses store points you to “youthful” looking bifocals. “Middle-aged people love these,” she chirps.
Here we are in 2018 — a golden age of rebranding — but who’s working to reintroduce “middle aged” to the American people?
Middle age, look around you! There are second acts in America: Dunkin’ is experimenting with shedding “Donuts” from its name. Some vegans are recasting themselves as plant-based. Meditation began calling itself mindfulness and has left the ashram for the boardroom.
In that vein, a 52-year-old Maryland woman, Lisa Nagel, is suggesting “mid-century modern.” It’s an idea born of disappointment with the term “middle aged” (it’s an “anchor”) and appreciation for the current decorating craze.
“Walking through places like Crate & Barrel and watching home renovation shows, you hear everyone touting mid-century modern,” said Nagel, head of school at St. Anne’s School of Annapolis.
“It’s in this elevated place, and I thought, ‘That’s how we need to refer to ourselves at this stage of life.’ ”
The idea has caught on with colleagues, she noted. “We are entering this time of our lives, and we want to project that sense of self-assurance and clean simplicity.”
The authors of “Just When You’re Comfortable in Your Own Skin, It Starts to Sag: Rewriting the Rules of Mid Life,” are suggesting the word “perennial” because it’s “vibrant, everlasting, and forward thinking.”
Henry Santoro, 61, a host/anchor at WGBH Radio, suggests a high-stakes move that involves eliminating the category entirely and dividing the whole of life into two categories: “You’re either young or you’re old,” he said. (This is definitely appealing, but imagine the war that would be waged over where to draw that line.)
Or we could keep middle aged but just never speak its name.
Pamela Druckerman, the author of “There Are No Grown-Ups: A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story,” says that in France, where she lives, there is simply no term for you-know-what.
“The French usually refer to la quarantaine, the 40s, which feels a lot more neutral,” she e-mailed the Globe.
“They do refer to ‘a woman of a certain age,’ ” she added, “but I think she’d be a bit older. The 40s and 50s aren’t yet an unmentionable age.”
Or, maybe we could keep the term but change the association. Tom Brady is 40, and considering he was willing to hawk Uggs, middle-aged people may be able to strike an endorsement deal, too.
It’s been nearly 20 years since the AARP (nee American Association of Retired Persons) gave itself a face lift and disappeared the “retired” word.
But “middle aged?” Without an army of activists cracking down on disrespectful usage, it remains a source of humor, the one group you can still safely joke about.
As the Onion put it: “Middle-Aged Woman Angrily Demanding Price Check On Rice Pudding Was Once Carefree Youth, Onlookers Speculate.”
Consider a line from his new book, which he read without apology on National Public Radio this week. “Though there’s an industry built on telling you otherwise, there are few real joys to middle age.”
This would be a perfect time to rob a bank, he told “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross. “Because when the police said — what did he look like? — they’d say, he had gray hair. That’s all people see.”
Although it seems hard to imagine, the concept of middle age didn’t even exist until about 150 years ago, said Patricia Cohen, author of “In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age.”
Before that, there were four ages — childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age. Then, we added a fifth, but no one really knows when middle age starts or when it ends. The 40-64 age range is commonly accepted, according to Cohen, a New York Times reporter, but some (teenagers) think it starts as early as 35, and others (teenagers’ grandparents) want to extend it to 75.
Middle-aged folks are Botoxing, popping Viagra, covering the gray, chanting mantras like “50 is the new 30,” keeping up with technology, exercising until they need new knees, and bleaching their teeth.
But to what end? The life stage has essentially been doomed since 1965, when Elliott Jaques, a psychoanalyst, social scientist, and management consultant, coined the term “midlife crisis.” The image of the paunchy, balding man driving a red convertible sports car was born.
Jaques introduced the phrase in a paper on the working patterns of creative geniuses, according to his New York Times obituary.
“Examining the careers of a number of composers and artists, he found abrupt changes in style or declines in productivity around the age of 35,” his 2003 obit reported. “Gail Sheehy popularized the phrase 10 years later in her book ‘Passages,’ giving Dr. Jaques credit in a footnote.”
Perhaps the saddest thing about middle age is this: It’s a group no one wants to be part of, until they age out, in which case they realize, too late, they didn’t appreciate what they had.