I had a birthday last month. As a 46-year-old, I am now squarely in middle age and am noticing all the same things the rest of my cohort are: a few more lines on the face, fading close vision, sleep issues, a couple of pounds around the mid-section that aren’t going anywhere without taking drastic measures, etc. All these things are minor, but they definitely add up to the feeling that youth is to be spoken of in the past tense.
However, there is a point at which my cohort and I are going to have to part ways, and that is their insistence on constantly discussing how old they are. Age comes up at school gatherings, soccer side-lines, on social media, and at parties. The soundtrack of my life sounds something like this:
“U2’s first big hit was over 30 years ago. Oh my God, I’m so old!”
“I used to run, but now I’m too old.”
“Do you remember using a typewriter? We’re so old!”
“I am not staying up until 2 a.m. I’m too old for that.”
And so it goes. Ad infinitum.
And here’s the thing: No, we are not young any more. We’ve been bona fide adults with all its attendant responsibilities and privileges for decades now. We have jobs (well, most of us). Most of us have houses to take care of. Many of us are knee-deep in child-rearing. We are coming up on our 8th presidential election. We are—or should be—mature.
But if we keep calling ourselves “old”—not every now and again, but constantly—what the heck are we going to call ourselves 30, 40, or 50 years hence? Is my generation seriously planning to complain about being old for half of their lives? For half a century? If so, I want out! Seriously. I can imagine nothing more tedious.
I have some pretty big thoughts about this, which I will distill into a few concise thoughts below:
1. Some of this is the product of a youth-obsessed culture. I’m not sure when it became so awful to be or be seen as something other than young, but it exacts a heavier toll than I realized at a ridiculously young age. Youth-centered beauty standards are harder on women than men, and this might be part of what I am responding to.
2. We do some of this damage to ourselves by stagnating. I read not too long ago that the average adult stops listening to new music around the age of 30. I anecdotally verified this when I created a birthday play-list last month (one song per year from 1970 to the present) and posted it to Facebook. Many of my friends commented that sometime around 1998-2000, they stopped recognizing the names of any of my chosen songs or artists. I assure you my taste is not that obscure. This would also explain all those greatest hits or oldies radio stations that play the same 50 songs in what feels like a continuous loop. We also stagnate in terms of our career, hobbies, fitness, and social habits. Not everyone can change all of these things, but none of us are stuck in all of them. Mix it up!
3. Related to the above, we have a choice. I know two people, one a friend and the other a relative, who will turn 80 this summer. Both exercise, read, work (part-time), and seek out new experiences. They are “old” chronologically (and neither goes to extreme measures to hide or deny his or her age), yet mange to be younger in attitude than many of my peers. They did not throw in the towel at 45 or 50, and I don’t plan to either. For that matter, my own mother still works, is open to new things, and mows her own lawn at age 76. She doesn’t complain about being old all the time, so why should I?
4. I have put together a prescription of sorts to help me avoid falling into the trap of self-induced stagnation. These are tips I have cobbled together from friends, coworkers, family, things I’ve read, and things I’ve thought about on my runs. Here goes.
- Each year, I make it a goal to make one new friend. This advice came from my old boss, Karen, and I didn’t realize how wise it was until recently.
- What Karen did not suggest, but others have, is that we should try to have friends who are different ages and have different backgrounds than we do. That can be hard, but I think it’s crucial if you don’t want all your experiences to be narrow and all your thoughts to calcify. I don’t have a great “going out” circle of friends like I did in San Francisco, but I do have friends who are 30 years older than I am, friends who are 17 years younger than I am, friends who were born overseas, and friends whose socioeconomic, racial, or ethnic background varies from my own.
- I am not writing off new music or new literary voices because of age—mine or the artist’s. Radiohead is great; I still love Radiohead; a lot of really good stuff has come out between their last great album, released 16 years ago, and the present.
- While one of the pleasures of being middle-aged is knowing who I am, I plan to remember that character traits are constant while interests and knowledge are moving targets. This last one speaks to a teacher certification program I will be starting next week, about which I will write more later.
- Finally, slightly counter-intuitively, I am not going to desperately cling to youth. I will color my hair (for now), stay fit, and use sunscreen. I will not spend thousands on skin-care, fillers, botox, liposuction, cool-sculpting, chemical peels, etc. in an attempt to deny my years. I’d rather spend that money on my house, my child, tickets to arts and sports activities, and travel. Nor will I attempt to pull off clothing designed for teenagers. Nothing is more aging than naked desperation.
Does this all sound like a mid-life crisis? It might well be! I maintain, however, that there is a big difference between “middle-aged” and “old”.