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
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.
The irony is that many of those not looking their ageing squarely in the ever-wrinkling face are quick to decry the infantilisation of society. They tut-tut about adults buying colouring books, visiting Disneyland or playing soldiers on paintballing weekends, but they themselves are refusing to grow up. We sneer at Neverland, failing to notice that the age at which we enter it has simply been raised by a decade.
Our modern-day Peter Pan looks more like George Clooney: someone who grows up just enough to be mature and sophisticated but forever retains a hip, youthful sexiness. But this is impossible and if we kid ourselves otherwise we end up more like Roger Moore in A View To A Kill: creaking, podgy, tragi-comic parodies of our younger selves. Far better to embrace the older versions of us we have become. I suspect women have been especially hampered by society’s unwillingness to help us do just that, rendering many of them invisible once they have lost the sheen of youth.
Age brings its own special kind of charisma, a real but less frenzied sexuality, a comfort in our skin that is better than a comfort in the latest fashion. Moving through the stages of life and taking what each has to offer inevitably requires leaving other things behind. Refusing to do so is like insisting on a second main course which not only brings diminishing returns but also prevents us getting on with savouring dessert.
I’m now approaching 50 and see no conflict between remaining full of life and accepting I’m getting ever nearer to death. I’m helped by this by a lot of the people I play tennis with, many of whom are drawing their pensions. Age is catching up with them more than it is me. Their lives sometimes seem like a series of injuries and minor operations and for all their greater skill, they just can’t cover the court like I can—just. But they still enjoy all the things I do, even it’s not quite as easy for them to do so. Accepting I’m not that far behind shows me that although in some ways it really is all downhill from here, if I make the most of my descent, there’s plenty to savour even at the foot of the hill.