Recently, the news that humans have an age at which they are most miserable rippled through the headlines, courtesy of a study on age and well-being released by the U.S.’s National Bureau of Economic Research. After surveying data gathered from more than half a million people in 132 countries, economist David Blanchflower found that the lowest point of a U-shaped trajectory of well-being dubbed the “happiness curve” came at 47.2 for people in developed nations and 48.2 in developing ones. As a U.S. resident who turned 47 in November, I can’t say whether the despair I regularly feel is statistical or situational—the world is both literally and figuratively on fire, after all; I don’t trust anyone who isn’t despairing on some level. But as a woman, I also know that there can’t be any discussion of unhappiness at any numerical point of what we call “midlife” without acknowledging the powerful cultural narratives of gender and aging.
Those narratives, and the economic, political, sexual, and pop cultural impact of them, are at the center of two new books. Ada Calhoun’s Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis and Susan J. Douglas’s In Our Prime: How Older Women are Reinventing the Road Ahead both approach their subject matter from generational perspectives, each starting from a place of unsettled personal clarity: Well, shit, I got old. Now what? Calhoun, the author of 2017’s Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give, frames Why We Can’t Sleep as a kind of autopsy of Generation X, the demographic so forgotten among the ongoing Boomers-vs.-Millennials battle royale that it was recently left off a list defining the generations. Gen X has an unshakeable reputation for slacker nihilism (“I just sit on the sidelines and watch the world burn” joked Kenan Thompson, playing the host of a game show called Millennial Millions in a 2019 Saturday Night Live sketch), but Calhoun points out that as the first generation to grow up in the wake of movements for civil rights, women’s liberation, and gay rights, Gen X entered adulthood facing the unique challenges of a world whose realities still lagged well behind its ideals.
Among those challenges was simply imagining that we would reach adulthood at all: The looming threat of nuclear war, the sudden and apocalyptic rise of HIV/AIDS, and the daily sight of missing children on the side of milk cartons were the backdrop to our childhoods. As a generation of latchkey kids whose parents were more likely to both work outside the home and more likely to divorce than those in previous generations, the “two primary messages of our childhood,” Calhoun writes, were “Reach for the stars” and “You’re on your own.” For Gen X women, such messages accompanied us into adulthood. Surrounded by media images of women ostensibly having it all, the idea that we were luckier than previous generations—with more choices about our bodies, educations, and sex lives as well as fewer expectations that marriage and children would be our sole destinies—meant that when things didn’t go right, we had no one to blame but ourselves.
Midlife, Calhoun posits, is where persistent gender imbalances—in education, in jobs and salaries, and in heterosexual marriage and family life—collide with the biological inevitabilities of aging (including perimenopause) as well as with consumer culture and new responsibilties like caring for aging family members. The result is a generation of women who are overworked, underpaid, unable to sleep through the night yet soaked in night sweat, and likely doing much more than their share of housework and childrearing. And these same women are increasingly assured that the solutions lie in meditation or yoga or a new home-organizing system. Gen X women, writes Calhoun, “were an experiment in crafting a higher-achieving, more fulfilled, more well-rounded version of the American woman. In midlife many of us find that the experiment is largely a failure.” Quoting a panoply of experts and featuring the voices of a range of women, the book surveys key flashpoints of anxiety (money, job insecurity, caregiving, appearance), presenting a portrait that, like aging itself, is both reflective and daunting.
Why We Can’t Sleep originated as a 2017 article in Oprah, and its portrait of Gen X women is one that leans firmly white, well-educated, heterosexual, and middle-class. Calhoun notes in a preface that “Except where relevant, I do not call attention…to these women’s race, sexuality, or other demographic markers, though they do mirror the makeup of the country,” which is a bit confusing (where aren’t those markers relevant to women’s stories?); regardless, there’s a definite emphasis on the midlife crossroads of heterosexual, married women with children. In many ways, this makes sense: It’s impossible to ignore that much of Gen X women’s anxiety stems from all the ways that home life—housework, parenting, a constantly updating mental to-do list—remains a site of gendered inequality. High-achieving women, particularly when they make more money than their husbands, take on more of an already-uneven share of housework, as if in penance for usurping the role of breadwinner. Even divorce has become women’s work: A 2015 report by the American Sociological Association found that women initiate 69 percent of marital splits.
That said, the chapter on women who arrive at midlife with no children, whether by choice or otherwise, introduces the resonant concept of “ambiguous loss.” Though often used to describe the grief of an unresolved loss (say, a parent with dementia who is alive but has no memory of you), the term extends to the loss of a life experience that was presumed but never guaranteed. “When you think about women in their forties,” says one expert, “it’s a very rare person who pictured herself single.” The expected trajectory of women’s lives is still so entrenched that a woman who doesn’t feel any loss, who is blissfully unpartnered and/or childfree, is likely to be confronted with others’ assumptions about her own happiness and fulfillment.
But, as author Glynnis MacNicol wrote in a 2018 New York Times essay on exactly this subject, one benefit of aging is that you care much less about the assumptions of others. Ultimately, Why We Can’t Sleep is less a polemic than it is a revelation: There are no neat conclusions to be found in a time when anxiety about money, health, and the ability to thrive in midlife are problems that plague us regardless of generation. Generation X women may have been misled by the belief that we inherited an easier, more equitable world than we actually did, but Calhoun’s one prescription is to let go of the idea that we have failed in becoming who we imagined we would be. “Almost every story I’ve heard of a Gen X woman pulling herself out of a midlife crisis has involved, in one way or another, the letting go of expectations,” she writes.
That mitigating these crises also involves collective work is at the heart of In Our Prime, whose author is brave enough to begin her book by identifying herself as a member of two reflexively maligned categories: Baby Boomer, and “woman of a certain age.” Douglas has spent decades chronicling the relationships between women and pop culture in books like Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female With the Mass Media (1994), The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How it Has Undermined All Women (2004), and Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done (2010). With In Our Prime, she turns her attention to a population that is somehow both enormous and invisible: women over the age of 50. Yes, Boomers are inescapable—as of 2017, one-third of the United States comprises people 50 and older—and, since men tend to die earlier, an increasing number of them are women. They’re healthier than ever, they’re retiring later, they’re getting happier, and, again, they’re caring less about what other people think they should or shouldn’t be doing.
In a culture that still judges women’s value by their looks and bodies, their childbearing potential, and their willingness to defer to men, a visible woman over 50 is an affront to a patriarchal system.
Which isn’t to say that aging in America is a party; there’s a reason you rarely hear, as you once might have, older people described as being in their “golden years.” Late retirement (or none at all) is very often a necessity rather than a choice; attempts to dismantle Social Security, Medicare, and other public-assistance programs have been a mainstay of Republican politics for decades; and for-profit pharmaceutical companies have driven the cost of prescription drugs so high that drugs commonly prescribed to people over 50 are prohibitively expensive. Because the current generation of older women are hit harder by the gender pay gap than men of the same age while also living longer, they are more likely to be financially insecure. According to a 2017 report from the U.S. Treasury Department Office of Economic Policy, women comprise 70 percent of elderly people living in poverty.
The paradox, as Douglas writes, is that aging is a women’s issue, but aging women themselves are ignored and devalued in ways their male counterparts simply aren’t. In a culture that still judges women’s value by their looks and bodies, their childbearing potential, and their willingness to defer to men, a visible woman over 50 is an affront to a patriarchal system. Their insistence on still existing in the world despite having outlived their sexual attractiveness and reproductive potential is an uncomfortable reminder that everyone—yes, even you!—gets old. And when they have opinions, political ambitions, or sex lives, it’s an open invitation for a one-two punch of sexism and ageism.
In Our Prime is an accounting of the ways media, consumer, and celebrity culture—everything from ad buys on channels like CNN to Hollywood representation to a thriving (and largely bogus) industry of “cosmeceutical” products—aim to sideline, shrink, and outright erase older women. But it’s also a feminist intervention, a call to reclaim women’s aging as a social movement and harness their voices, experience, and wisdom toward social change—and hopefully impact the experience of aging for future generations. Feminists of the 1960s and ‘70s, she notes, fomented change simply by making themselves unavoidable: “[W]hen women saw themselves in the media both as a coveted market and as masses of demonstrators in the streets, their collective identity and rebellion were hypervisible, documenting that they constituted a movement that had to be taken seriously.”
Activism by and for older women has always existed: The group that would become known as the Gray Panthers was founded by Maggie Kuhn in 1970 to advocate against mandatory-retirement laws, and went on to organize and steer policy on everything from nursing-home reform to urban housing policy. The Older Women’s League closed as a national advocacy organization in 2017, but local chapters continue to campaign on issues like paid sick leave and raising the minimum wage. And local chapters of the singing, dancing Raging Grannies have been mainstays at Occupy Wall Street protests, city-council meetings, and women’s marches across North America.
These days, Douglas points out, much of the most prominent anti-ageist activism takes place in the pop cultural sphere, in the form of what she calls “visibility revolts.” She casts an eye back to The Golden Girls—the first TV show whose main characters were all over 50, and which remains in syndication more than 25 years later and has a fan base that crosses generations—as an example: The trash-talking Miami roommates upended stereotypes of older women as sexless, cookie-baking background grandmas, showed them as politically engaged and open-minded, and tackled issues that were verboten elsewhere.
Douglas identifies current visibility revolts in shows like Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, whose creators have used the freedom offered by streaming platforms for storylines about the indignities of vaginal dryness and the need for ergonomic sex toys—assertive rebukes to a medical-industrial complex that will happily jack up the price of treatments for dry vaginas but don’t want to hear women talking about them. As Douglas notes, though, those visibility revolts are often overshadowed by “aspirational aging” of the kind practiced by Grace and Frankie’s Jane Fonda, and typified by every profile of celebrities like Helen Mirren, Angela Bassett, and Rita Moreno where male authors are sure to make a point of how much they’d totally bang any one of them. The only alternative to being erased entirely, it seems, is being sexualized, “with still being sexually active or, better yet, still sex as the way to distinguish yourself as not old.”
Inherent in all feminisms are generational conflicts, but too often they’re ginned up to pit younger feminists against older ones in a kind of mother-daughter media catfight. In Our Prime proposes an approach that Douglas calls “lifespan feminism”—a way to reframe “the issues facing older women as part of a continuum of concern, attention, and activism that begins with the well-being of girls and young women and sees feminism as a mainstay and resource throughout the entire arc of a woman’s life.” The book’s final chapter outlines an agenda for personal, social, and political change, from drawing attention to gendered ageism to forming intergenerational bridge groups to making sure that existing feminist advocacy groups like NOW and Ultra Violet include older women’s concerns in their campaigns.
At the center of both Why We Can’t Sleep and In Our Prime is something forward-thinking and hopeful: an acknowledgment that none of these things—the midlife anxiety, the various indignities of aging, the night sweats, the frustration of not being seen or heard once we exist for ourselves, in ourselves—are new, and that changes and solutions aren’t going to be found in yoga retreats or pricey night creams. If there’s a country for old(er) women, they propose, we’re going to have to build it ourselves, together.