courtesy of Marc Jacobs©
Lately, I’ve been thinking about older women.
Hold on. Let me explain.
This past month, Tom Junod wrote an article in Esquire magazine called, “In Praise of 42 Year-Old Women.” As the title suggests, Junod lays tribute to a relatively newfound cultural phenomenon: the ascent of the middle-aged woman. He writes, “a few generations ago, a woman turning forty-two was expected to voluntarily accept the shackles of biology and convention; now it seems there is no one in our society quite so determined to be free.”
Bear in mind, it’s a men’s magazine, written largely for men, by men. So Junod’s praises & perspectives may be a bit… partisan. Okay. But what does seem undeniable is the mainstream momentum building behind today’s middle-aged woman:
Last year People magazine crowned then-40-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow as the “World’s Most Beautiful Woman“, a list that also included 38-year-old Drew Barrymore, 46-year-old Halle Berry and 75-year-old Jane Fonda.
Popular daytime television programs and online content portals, predominately aimed at women, declare that 40 is the new 30, not necessarily a novel topic of discussion but gaining in social clout.
Major brands are beginning to feature older female models: for example, Marc Jacobs announced 64-year-old Jessica Lange as the new face of the brand. 62-year-old Jacky O-Shaughnessy recently modeled a signature leotard for American Apparel.
Even privately: according to the research and data analytics division at one of the world’s highest-trafficked porn websites, the most popular performer of the year was a 42-year-old woman who managed to garner 3 times more searches and comments than anyone else on the list .
Once you stack up all of these media observations, an interesting inflection starts to emerge: either our culture today isn’t nearly as fixated on youth as we’ve historically been or our culture is beginning to redefine the meaning of youth.
Part of this phenomenon may be explained by demographic shifts. We are an aging population. By 2050, the average age of Americans will increase from 35.3 years-old to 41.7 years-old . And obviously our definition of “middle age” shifts proportionately to increases in age expectancy.
Then again, part of it may also be explained by generational shifts in lifestyle. Young women today are more likely to be college-educated than young men, meaning they typically enter the workforce at a later age, on average. They’re also now getting married three years older, on average, then they were in 1980 . And some experts also point to the fact that more women are having children later in life, evinced in part by a 25% increase of women having their first child between the ages 35 to 39 over the past decade . In many ways, it’s becoming more common for major life milestones to be met later in life.
But another often overlooked factor may be, you guess it, money. Women control $12 trillion of the overall $18.4 trillion in global consumer spending, which means there’s a significant financial opportunity for both media and brands . Especially when it comes to categories around beauty and appearance. By some estimates, the boom for anti-aging products in just one year was projected to surpass $4 billion . And we all know, wherever money leads, focus follows.
So before we applaud this remarkable cultural resurgence of the modern middle-aged woman, perhaps we should consider the arch of the narrative, not just the momentum behind it.
And this is where the perspectives of real-life women can trump any trend analysis or quantitative market research or demonstrative datasets.
Huffington Post writer Susan Deily-Swearingen expressed her own exhaustion over the trend: “40 is not the new 30, just like Obama is not the new Kennedy, just like Michael Buble is not a new Rat Packer. 40 is simply 40. Why can’t things just be what they are? Why do things have to be the new something else? When do we give things a chance to just be themselves?”
Elissa Straus of The Week put it more strongly, “we have ladies feeling more pressure to be hot later than ever… men haven’t embraced actual mature, powerful women. Nope. All we have here is yet another fantasy. It’s just the same old song.”
The reality is, there seems to be an unfortunate tradeoff to this story. On one hand, it’s encouraging to see an older demographic of women finally receiving mainstream recognition. It’s about time. But on the other hand, it’s also entirely possible that the media frenzy around middle-aged women is yet another attempt to prolong the pressure and reinforce the stereotypes that media has traditionally placed on them, albeit at a younger age.
Is it possible that our newfound cultural obsession with the middle-aged woman stems solely from the middle-aged woman’s ability to revert herself back to a former self? To lose the baby weight. To eliminate the face lines. To look good in a bikini on the cover of Vogue. It’s the difference between wanting to compliment a middle-aged woman on how good she looks and feeling the need to congratulate her on it.
Time will tell.
But the most encouraging element of this cultural phenomenon is that we may beginning to see a phase change. Finally. Women today, spearheaded in large part by this older group of women, may be beginning to untether themselves from the stereotypes that mainstream media has historically tied them to. A shift in the story. After all, there is perhaps no one better poised to escape the guise of archetypes and to embrace genuineness in it’s many forms, than she.
Just as the modern middle-age woman has proven to us all that she, too, can project an air of undeniable desire, she’s also here to remind us that she doesn’t always need to.
 Pornhub Insights, 2014
 Vienna Institute of Demography at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, 2006
 Pew Research Center, 2011
 WiseGeek.org, 2014
 Center for Disease Control & Prevention, 2014
 Boston Consulting Group, 2014
 Focalyst & Millward Brown, 2007