Wedding Finance

Life begins at 40? No, it’s just denial

At the beginning of Four weddings and a funeral, the character of Hugh Grant no longer remembers the wedding of his friends to which he has just arrived late. “Who is it today?” he asks awkwardly, rushing to his bench. Personally, I’m not sure I’ve ever attended so many weddings that I’ve lost track of the couples involved. But I wonder if it could happen with the 40s.

All of my friends look like they’re 40, including those who are 41 but never had a chance to celebrate because of the pandemic. Over dinners, drinks, we work on the backlog. Never let a round number go to waste.

One good thing about a 40th birthday party, unlike an 18th or 30th, is that it doesn’t end with an awkward silence over the bill and a trip to a sticky floor dive bar . Nobody vomits. No one steals your coat. But the format is a little uncertain: are there speeches? Is it time for tributes? And it reflects a nagging question: is 40 years really any kind of landmark?

Let’s start with the expression “life begins at 40”. Its popularity dates back to a bestselling 1932 self-help book of this title by a curious American scholar called Walter B Pitkin. He probably should have gone out of fashion with John Lennon, who wrote a song called “Life Begins at 40” but never recorded it because he was shot two months after his 40th birthday.

In fact, no one says “life begins at 40” anymore for another reason, namely that it would be a transparent attempt to hide decline. My friends try to pretend there is no decline. We are well! We know how to use the Internet! We don’t need knee replacements! Or at least we don’t realize we need knee replacements!

Turning forty today doesn’t feel like a fresh start: chances are you’re, life-wise, halfway through. For starters, you may still be concerned about young children. In the early 1980s, nearly three-quarters of children in the UK were born to women under 30. Today, most are born to women. in their thirties. So sleeping in doesn’t start at 40. Nor can you join a golf club or have a spiritual awakening, given the demands of back to school.

At the same time, many of us approaching 40 don’t really feel like adults. We don’t wear ties to work. We can’t DIY. We are lucky to still have our parents in good health. Not to mention housing costs and pensions that infantilize us financially. All in all, we feel like we’re playing a part in our 40s, not actually doing it.

Happiness surveys also reinforce the impression that four decades is not a dividing line: they suggest that our satisfaction declines from our late 20s to our late 40s. Life begins again at 50 would be an accurate summary.

The argument that 40 is a benchmark rests partly on longevity. Looking at the Office for National Statistics website, I see that men who are 40 now have a life expectancy of 84. We’re about halfway there. (We only have a 5.7% chance of living in triple digits – which wasn’t quite what the many headlines about medical breakthroughs expected me to be.) In the last UK general election, 39 years was the age limit at which someone was more likely to vote Conservative than Labour.

Add to that the fact that all benchmarks invite comparison and reflection, and turning 40 can take on tremendous significance. You might as well do things now if you want to do them at all. It is neither too late nor too early. At a recent party I tried to convince the woman to my left that now was a good age to get a tattoo because we didn’t have to worry about what it would look like in the decades to come. to come. I cited the example of David Dimbleby, who had a scorpion tattooed on his shoulder at the age of 75. She wasn’t convinced.

Looking for advice on what 40 should feel like, I watched Pitkin’s Life begins at forty and its 1933 sequel More power for you! He advocates that after reaching 40, readers should live a simplified life. Parenthood should be kept to a minimum, as part of a desire to save energy. Here are some other tips: “Never open second-class mail. It saves several hundred calories a year” and “Never pick up what an able-bodied woman has dropped”. I decided to skip this wisdom.

I instead turned to Baz Luhrmann’s spoken word song “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)”, whose lyrics are a supposed opening speech. It came out in my late teens; I guess that was what passed for life advice before motivational podcasts. “Trust me,” says Luhrmann’s narrator, “in 20 years [ie, now] you’ll be looking at pictures of yourself and remembering in a way you can’t grasp now how many possibilities there were and how fabulous you really were.

A nice thought, but unfortunately not confirmed by the photos. The song continues: “Don’t waste your time with jealousy; sometimes you are early, sometimes you are late. The race is long, and in the end, it is only with oneself. We speak now. I’m a sucker for such sugary declarations, though I can’t claim they’ll have much impact: I don’t always wear sunscreen.

Shortly before my last round of 40th celebrations, I came across a list of “103 tips I wish I had known” from a writer called Kevin Kelly. They were mostly practical. Some examples: “The biggest lie we tell ourselves is, ‘I don’t have to write it down because I’ll remember it.’ (True: always write things down.) “There’s no such thing as than being ‘on time’. Either you’re late or you’re early. Your choice.” (True, but difficult.) “It’s exciting to be extremely polite to rude strangers.” (True, but impossible.) “If you lend someone $20 and never see them again because they avoid paying you back, that’s worth $20.” (No one has ever asked me for $20 and then disappeared, but I’ll keep that in mind.)

Etc. There was enough wisdom in Kelly’s 103 tips to form a good set of 40th birthday resolutions. Reading them, I felt decidedly not old. It wasn’t so much that they were emphasizing the world of possibilities ahead; it was rather that I realized that I could never have written such a list.

Kelly’s list stands out for his confidence: he just turned 70 and lives in California. Meanwhile, I, almost 40 years old and living in London, just hadn’t decided what the good life was. Life is like one of those whiteboards you find when you walk into a recently used meeting room. There are a few gaps to write down your own thoughts, but as the board fills in, you have to decide which bits of legacy wisdom to erase and replace. I always pretend not to have to use the eraser.

Speaking to my 40-year-old peers, they too don’t feel old. They have, however, ceased to feel young. Born in the early 1980s, we are millennials, but only on a technicality. We’re gatecrashers, and in truth we don’t belong to that more interesting demographic. More and more, we feel alienated from true millennials and Gen Z. I admire the honesty of these younger generations about mental health, but it seems quite foreign. In quiet moments, I could admit that their use of technology baffles me. Most of them didn’t even look Four weddings and a funeral, for God’s sake. But if you can’t feel young, then not feeling old is the best thing to do.

In Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell wrote of the “relieved, almost blissful feeling” of becoming depressed. “You’ve talked so often about going to see the dogs – well, here’s the dogs, and you’ve reached them, and you can handle it. It takes a lot of the anxiety away. For years the number 40 stands at the horizon like an intimidating hill. By the time you get there, to the endless 40th birthday dinners, you’ve assimilated it. You can take it. Another peak looms now in the distance. Fifty? Now it really has looks bad.

Henry Mance is the FT’s feature editor

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