How old is old? Ask an 18-year-old and they’d likely answer 25. I am a hater of birthdays (mine and yes even other people’s; I just don’t get the appeal), but when mine rolled around last month it got me thinking: Are we really as young as we feel? Are we able to carry on enjoying life, working, being active for as long as we want?
Remember when 40 was the new 30; 60 the new 40? Are we now getting to the stage when 80 is the new 60? Or is the secret to aging all about entering a new mindset—one where we accept the new stage of life as we enter it?
I apologize for this bout of introspection. For a lot of women, getting older is a confusing time, especially when one of those milestones approaches. How can I be 40 when I feel better than I did at 30? But who does “feel” their age? I put the question to my friends on Facebook and was struck by the volume of replies.
One of the best was from our Tucson-based friend Sonja, who wrote: “I see stories of 80-year-olds accomplishing this or that and I’m suitably impressed, and then I think, ‘wait a minute! I’m 75.’ My mom thinks I’m young; she’s 97.” Another friend pointed out the growing numbers of “80-year-olds on dating apps.” I think that point, in particular, overturned whatever ageist preconceptions I might have had.
To our younger selves, the milestones of 30, 40, 50 and then 60 appear impossibly old because we can never imagine “being old.” And when we do reach them, of course we don’t feel so different (why should we?) so refuse to let preconceptions hold us back. And they can.
Workplace ageism is a real issue for both sexes, especially in industries like advertising, entertainment and fashion—where youth is worshiped. Even male friends in their 40s tell me they’ve experienced blatant discrimination.
Last December Dutchman Emile Ratelband went to court to try to legally change his age to 49 after complaining that declaring his actual age of 69 meant he couldn’t buy a house, take up more work or get a date on Tinder. Unfortunately for Ratelband’s dating prospects, the judge wasn’t buying his argument and dismissed the case. But can you imagine if he’d been successful?
I’m not sure trying to hold onto one’s youth or denying certain inevitabilities is the solution, but what I’ve realized from talking to countless women and men in all walks of life is that this is not so much about getting older, or the feelings and fears it generates. Rather, it’s about feeling like we belong in the state of life we’re at. That’s what is key.
Witness the growing popularity of “croning ceremonies,” a new-age ritual for women to celebrate the new stage of wisdom that comes after menopause. The idea of celebrating menopause at all would have been ridiculous a few years ago. But if it encourages women to welcome and not dread this new chapter, then why not? (Incidentally, I consider that question—“why not?”—a gift for the taking to those of growing older and wiser.)
In our 30s, we women worry about hitting 40. In our 40s, we’re scared of middle age. So hitting 50 can be a relief. It’s the first time we can stop worrying about our age, reclaim our minds and bodies for ourselves, embrace wisdom and then—hopefully—share that with others. Above all, we develop a capacity to care less about the things that don’t matter. (To think of the stupid, fickle, nonimportant things that kept me awake with worry throughout my 20s.) We can dress outrageously if we feel like it, hike up mountains if the knees allow, continue to work or search for love.
Shakespeare posited there were seven stages to this eventful life. We all have many parts to play; we just need to know which one we’re in.