There's nothing shameful about growing up. In fact, embracing the reality of getting older can make our lives richerby Julian Baggini / March 28, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
When I turned 30, too many years ago to mention, I raised a glass and toasted my entry to middle age. Everyone else was shocked by this, thinking I was being premature. Perhaps the real reason for their recoiling was that if 30 really was middle aged, that made the rest of them either middle-aged themselves, too close to it for comfort or—god forbid—old.
To me it was a simple question of mathematics. My life expectancy at birth was not much more than 70, making its midpoint 35. Even if I now have an odds-on chance of making 90, the middle part of that would be the years from 30-60. What bit of “middle” can’t people understand?
Denial of the onset of middle-age is matched by an even fiercer refusal to accept it is over. Some people drawing state pensions still refer to themselves as middle-aged. It now seems rude to describe anyone under 80 as “old.” Some ban the “O” word altogether, insisting we talk only of “seniors.”
There are some respectable impulses behind this refusal to face facts. Both “middle aged” and “old” have misleading connotations for generations who are staying active and energised longer than ever. If middle-age means listening to Chris de Burgh, reading Jeffrey Archer novels and thinking a trip to a garden centre is the highlight of the week, then no wonder people reject the label. It’s even worse with “old” with its associations of doddery folk sitting around in wrinkly tights or worn slippers waiting for the rare visitor.
Of course neither of these stereotypes describes the typical experience of people growing older today. But that does not mean people are no longer becoming old or middle-aged. It’s simply that the meaning of these phases and phrases are changing. We’re right to reject the old associations but we deceive ourselves if we think that means we still belong to younger age groups than our birth certificates indicate.
The problem with this systematic self-deception in which we all collude is that it obscures uncomfortable truths we’re better off acknowledging. Life is horribly short and if we’re not careful it quickly passes us by. A wake-up call at 30 might seem like a shock to the system but it’s one we desperately need. Similarly, there’s no use pretending that the future is an open, indefinite vista when you’re approaching 60. If you’ve been paying any attention you’ll have noticed that already several of your peers have popped their clogs and the attrition rate is only going to get higher. Yes, you have a good chance of keeping going for decades to come but the odds of a nasty illness or cardiac failure are too high to take that for granted.