The Dawning of the Age of 40: Four Reflections on Turning and Being 40

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When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I remember sifting through the different c40ategories of birthday cards in a Hallmark store. Besides the usual Sweet 16 cards and so on, there were a selection of cards with messages about being “over the hill”. At that age, I couldn’t think in metaphors, so when my mother tried to explain what “over the hill” meant, I kept drawing blanks. “What do you mean your life is a hill? Your life is a hill you ride up and then it’s all downhill from a certain point??” When it was finally explained to me that the peak of the hill was middle-age around the age of 40, I tossed the notion aside because it was far too removed from my life then. At that time, 40 was the age I associated with my parents’ generation. Even 13 was abstract! As I got older, into my teens, twenties and even my thirties, 40 still remained a distant and abstract age. Then suddenly friends just a couple of years older than me entered into their 40s and there it was on my own doorstep. In the six months leading up to my 40th, I contemplated a lot about my health, my happiness, my mortality, my accomplishments, my lack of accomplishments, and other big questions.

When I finally did reach 40 in February and in the months that have followed, I have felt somewhat heavy hearted about it. When scoping out the profiles and status updates of friends on Facebook, I realized that many of my fellow turning-40 peers also experienced similar anxiety and deep reflection around the milestone age. Some of us expressed it with a little trepidation with status updates like, “Reflecting on my life on the last week of my 30s”. Others of us tried to put on brave faces with status updates like, “I’m 40 and fabulous!” or “40- here I come!” On my own status update, I proclaimed I was “Embracing 40”.

So what is it that is so significant about turning 40? I suppose turning 30 is just as significant, but something seems more weighted, graver and intense about 40. Therefore, over the next few days, I will share four different aspects, perspectives and reflections about turning and being 40 based on my own personal experiences. I hope these vignettes will simply serve as a launch pad for further discussion, thoughts, funny stories and sharing of heavy concerns. Here we go..


Part 1: Life’s halfway marker

Extending on the theme of “over the hill”, perhaps some of the anxiety about turning 40 is that it is indeed a reasonable marker for half of a lifetime. Consider that the average life expectancy in the US in 2010 was 78.74 years. In New Zealand, there is a little more of an advantage with 83 years for females and 79.3 years for males. No doubt, these ages will increase by the time my peers and I reach our 70s. On the flipside, it’s a bit jarring to read statistics about life expectancies from previous historical periods. For example, the global average life expectancy of a person born in 1950 was only 48 years young, and for 1900, it was only 31 years young!

I suppose it can be assuring that so many medical advancements have been made just within the last two generations and that people’s quality of life, access to decent diets, education, shelter and health have improved overall. Every once and a while, I stop and consider that I won the cosmic lottery for being born in this modern day and age and in a developed country with so many comforts and conveniences. Unlike people in some parts of the world or from previous generations, I haven’t had to battle life threatening illnesses, work my way in the middle of the night to outdoor primitive toilets, wait for once-a-month-only baths or showers, toil and labor over backbreaking work twelve hours a day and seven days a week, nor stop with my schooling at the age of 10. Thanks to not being dealt those unfortunate cards, my life expectancy has a very good chance of pushing at least 80.

But with the increased likelihood of living longer comes certain modern day burdens that many of our 19th and early 20th century 40-year old predecessors didn’t have to consider so deeply. Burning questions and concerns such as, “Will I live too long? Will I have enough money to last me until I die? Will I have to work until I am really old? Who will care for me?” I’m guessing that in previous centuries, these concerns were less relevant because people simply didn’t live into healthy old age and quite literally worked until the day they died (yes- I’m talking about you, person born in 1900 with an average life expectancy of 31). Also, for a long time, even in the US (and still to this day in many places all over the world), people knew they would be cared for by their families and younger generations and that they would even live together under one roof. When my grandparents were in their 40s, for example, it was assumed and common practice that their parents would eventually move in and live with them in their twilight years. Indeed my mother’s parents did have both their mothers living with them in their last years. Somewhere along the line though, that changed and elderly loved ones started to live independently or in rest home facilities. So for our parents’ generation and younger, including us 40 somethings, this is the reality of what we will likely be facing when we reach our more mature years. We grapple with saving enough for our life in the present while also trying to set aside money for the possibility of living to 2075 and even onward.

Another note on the topics of age and the later chapters in life is that we 40-somethings are now beginning to face the reality of our parents’ aging. When we were younger, we got a glimpse of what’s ahead in this realm when we witnessed our grandparents’ aging and our own parents facing the ups and downs of those years. Over the last couple of years I have had an increasing number of conversations with peers about their parents and what considerations they have for accommodating them and being closer to them. One friend has shared his hope to soon buy his dream farm home with peacocks and fruit trees and have his parents join him there. Another friend anguishes over being halfway around the world from her parents and how she may balance the current demands of her work and life in her present home with that of more substantial, meaningful times with her parents. I too struggle with such guilt sometimes and how I will be able to contribute to my parents’ happiness in their later years, just like they did for my grandparents.

Perhaps these heavy, weighty thoughts are necessary in order to come to terms with the cycle of life. And perhaps 40 isn’t any more special than 10, 20, 60 or 80. 40 itself is just another marker along life’s journey.

Next in this series on turning and being 40:
Part 2: Running for the Big Achievements’ Deadline

For further listening and reading:

Laura Carstensen’s 2011 TED Talk: Older people are happier

Dr. Atul Gawande’s documentary on PBS Frontline: Being Mortal

Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

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