The May 6 New York Times Magazine is all about “The New Middle Ages.”

When, exactly, is “middle age”? Glad you asked. Indeed, William Safire attempts to tackle that question in his “On Language” column, prompted by readers who scoffed at an earlier column:

“In your discussion of the term age-appropriate,” writes Prof. Erik Smith of Concordia University, Montreal, “you identified Harrison Ford as ‘middle-aged.’ Mr. Ford is 64. If he were literally middle-aged, then he could expect to live to 128. By describing themselves as middle-aged, are not those in their 60s and even 70s guilty of some rather overoptimistic math?”

This was one splash in the responsive deluge that followed my mild observation that it was “age-appropriate” for a middle-aged actor like Ford to play opposite a female actor (formerly “actress”) of about 35 or 40. “That may be age-appropriate for Hollywood,” Hank Walker e-snorted, “but around here that age gap only shows up in second-marriage husbands with first-marriage wives.” J. R. Taylor of Washington offers good advice: “It may be time for On Language to address the parallel to academic ‘grade inflation” that now infests the language of aging.”

But perhaps “middle age” is less about statistics and more about meaning.

In “Reinventing Middle Age,” Daphne Merkin writes of the baby-boomer generation: “What generations before us were spared is the relatively recent invention of middle age as a sustained mentality — one predicated on an awareness of its own growing remove from that elusive property known as hipness. […] Fueled by an increasing fear and demonization of Old Age, ours is a generation bred on the notion of doing it our way, right up to our method of retirement.”

But as Merkin ultimately concludes, “Being young was never as great as it’s made out to be and being middle-aged is not as bad as all that.” She continues:

Take a deep breath. With a modicum of luck, there’s lots up ahead to hold your interest. There’s still time enough to soften your views and limber up your affections, still time to take chances. Still time, you never know, to undo having become exactly what you did not want to be. Bruce Springsteen, one of the very few rock stars to age gracefully, sums up our plight in his anthemic “Thunder Road”: “So you’re scared and you’re thinking/That maybe we ain’t that young anymore.” And then, being Springsteen, he immediately offers us a way out. “Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night.”

More links to stories from NYT special issue after the jump …

The NYT website includes some great multimedia features. In the short film “Naked” by Rachel Dretzin, 10 women and men discuss what sex is like when you’re old enough to know better. You can watch Sara Davidson’s interview with scientists Lenny Guarente, Ph.D., author of “Ageless Quest: One Scientist’s Search for Genes that Prolong Youth,” and Robert N. Butler, M.D., founding director of the National Institute on Aging.

There’s also a slideshow on five women who defined and defied a generation’s standards of beauty — but you’ll have to go to the website to view it. Also, you can “measure your wisdom” by completing this questionnaire created by Monika Ardelt, a sociology professor at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

Here’s a look at other magazine stories related to the special issue. What did you think of the content mix? Comment below on “The New Middle Ages.”

Questions for Nora Ephron
Deborah Solomon talks with the writer about why lying about your age doesn’t work anymore, what kind of cosmetic procedure hurts least and what’s wrong with saying there’s nothing wrong with aging.

Freakonomics: Laid-Back Labor
Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt look at how repetitive household tasks our parents and grandparents tried to avoid became midlife leisure activities

The Ethicist: Sex Changes
Randy Cohen answers questions involving desire and deceit.

Consumed: Muscular Metaphor
Rob Walker on how one company found the right words to tap the baby-boomer penchant for personal development.

The Older–and–Wiser Hypothesis
This cover story, by Stephen S. Hall, looks at how wisdom, long a subject for philosophers, is now being scrutinized by a cadre of scientific researchers.

A Longer, Better Life
Sara Davidson talks to two medical scientists about how the body ages and the research on trying to extend our healthy life span.

Bruce Stutz writes about going on — and getting off — an antidepressant

TV’s Silver Age
Lorne Manly looks at whether Viacom can sell America on television for and about 50-year-olds

Lives: Midlife Vehicle Administration
Author Lauren Slater on her life, her car


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  • Jessica May 7, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    It’s impossible to read those Springsteen lyrics and not include the final lines of that stanza:
    You ain’t a beauty but, hey, you’re alright
    Oh, and that’s alright with me
    I swear I tear up whenever I hear those lines of love and acceptance.
    Thanks for linking to all this.