The Politics of Midlife

Among the problems we face as a nation, cultural perception of aging is a rather subtle one. Nevertheless, in a country which still proclaims the ideal of liberty and equality for all, it may require our attention.

Margaret M. Gullette presents an extensive study of the impact of our culture on the idea of mid-life in her book, Declining to Decline: Cultural Combat and the Politics of the Midlife (University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1997). She holds that much anxiety about aging originates in our culture's concept of it, in what she refers to as "age ideology." Her political goal is that all of us, especially women, should try to escape "being aged by culture." What she hopes for ultimately is "a movement, public policy, a moral vision of a different society an age revolution." All good goals.

She writes from a feminist perspective. I admit right off that I'm not always in perfect tune with that outlook. It's partly my lack of understanding maybe. But more likely, it's my reluctance to keep putting men and women into compartments, emphasizing our differences rather than our human similarities. What is best about this book is that its author writes from her own experiences, including incidents from her childhood and adolescence, the arrival at middle age, her career and its obstacles, and her painful experiences with arthritis following an accident many years ago. As a reader, though, I wish she could have dropped or downplayed the academic diction and been more straightforward and direct so that ordinary women like me could understand it better.

Anyway, age prejudice, or age ideology, takes many forms. one of the most destructive is in the job market. She writes that around age 50 many people, men and women both, experience "a drastic downward turning point for full employment." Why, she asks, is this midlife subemployment "not a concern for America, complete with punditry, outrage, and action plans?" It's an important question. Part of the answer to it is simply that there aren't enough really good jobs in this country to go around and be available for workers of all ages.

I know that in Stillwater, Okla., where more than half our population is either students, faculty, or employees at Oklahoma State University, that it's not unusual to find highly educated people in surprising jobs. A friend with an advanced degree in American history is the greeter at Wal Mart. The lady I know who cleans a sorority house near the campus has a B.S. degree in elementary education. The part-time janitor at Highland Park United Methodist church started her adult life as a college English instructor. Since I like to clean and throw away trash, it could be that I have found my life work after all. Still, it isn't quite what I expected, but I realize I made a big mistake by some standards by staying at home so many years with the children.

But moving right along, underemployment isn't the only problem that we seem to overlook or distort. Poor health, both its pains and its cost, is another. Gullette had a whole chapter on menopause, which I found very interesting. It's not truly a health problem, but the big drug companies define it as a major concern and try to turn this minor and normal part of life, with its many actual advantages, into a malady that requires taking hormones indefinitely. It's a wonder that pharmaceutical firms haven't commercialized the start of maturity in young females with some indispensable medication too.

There's another issue here too -- cosmetic surgery for women. Is it just a phony and futile gesture toward looking younger? Some feminists say yes and seem to feel guilty about it. On the other hand, I'd like to think it represents a good esthetic value, simply trying to look as good as we can, not as young as we can, but as good. That's a worthy value in my book.

Reading this did make me think again about my own two age-related needs which are very simple. I want good health and enough good cash. I'd also like a few extra bucks from time to time for a little of that cosmetic surgery in just the right places.

Contact Alvena Bieri, 2023 W. 11th Ave, Stillwater OK 74074 or email

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