What 50 looks like now: The advantages of middle age
Middle age does not have a glamorous reputation. Say the words and you think sagging face, creaky joints and making a noise when you sit down in your elasticated waistband. Coupled with these physical humiliations is the negative attitude that the best of your life is over. It’s downhill from here, you might as well just take up quilt-making and concentrate on your garden. Oh, and don’t forget to disapprove of young people and adamantly oppose all new ideas.
But stop, don’t turn into that miserable grouch. There are so many advantages to this time in your life, and I don’t just mean an increased likelihood of being offered a seat on the tube.
"You can dress like a young person, but unlike her, you haven’t got to worry about plotting the six decades ahead"
"Age is just a number" may sound like wishful thinking but generational blurring is a fact now that a woman in her fifties is likely to buy the same clothes as her daughter. So you can dress like a young person, but unlike her, you haven’t got to worry about plotting the six decades ahead. Your time remaining is likely to be around half that, which really focuses the mind and makes you concentrate on what’s important.
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The best thing is the recklessness that this engenders. For a start, don’t bother with people you don’t like. You may have thought, when you were younger, that it was important to keep up a wide-ranging social life and invite people round because it’s your turn. Once you’re over 50, you think, do I really want to? Instead, you can drop the friends you’ve gone off and make new ones, people whose stories you haven’t heard a hundred times before.
And when you find yourself at a dinner party, you no longer feel obliged to sit up gassing into the small hours, because you can cheerfully get up and announce that you’re leaving whenever you want. You certainly don’t need to "go on to a club", the way you used to. Pity the young who still have to pretend they like it. They may be disparaging about us choosing to spend our nights on the sofa, bingeing on box sets but that’s because they’re jealous.
In fact, it’s not doing things that I find most liberating. Once you realise that you haven’t got all the time in the world, you can cheerfully accept that it’s too late for many unappealing projects. Like losing two stone, learning another language, throwing yourself out of a plane when there’s even a microscopic chance your parachute won’t open. From where you are now, this looks like common sense, not a cop out and it makes you happy.
Ambition is less pressing and you can stop banging on about your career (because if you haven’t made it by now, you probably won’t, so change the record.) The other thing you no longer have to bother with is bringing up children, unless you’re unlucky enough to be doing it second time round. At a wedding recently I was struck by the grey face of the father of the bride, until I remembered he’d got another batch of kids under ten. No lie-in for him after dad-dancing the night away.
"Don’t let humility about your own achievements be eclipsed by boasting about your children"
A great advantage of being middle-aged is that you become more humble and lose the desire to brag. Suddenly those strutting cocks in their thirties seem like terrible bores, and you find you prefer the company of older people who choose not to blow their own trumpet. This is linked with physical decline—when you look in the mirror and see you’re losing your looks, it makes you admit that you’re not as great as you used to think you were and this automatically makes you a nicer person.
A word of advice here, though: don’t let humility about your own achievements be eclipsed by boasting about your children. Every time a friend’s child succeeds, a little something inside me dies, as Gore Vidal might have said.
The over-fifties are actually much better at certain things than younger people, thanks to one marvelous advantage that is the preserve of silver foxes, and that is Experience. You’ve probably seen it all before, which helps you to make better judgements. Emotional intelligence increases as you grow older—you are more likely to know how someone is feeling by looking in their eyes than you did as a self-absorbed younger person.
Not only that, but you have a bigger vocabulary and are better at maths. It has been proved that older people use both sides of their brain at once to solve a problem, whereas the young only use one side at once, the lightweights.
A massive plus, for me, in getting older is that you keep things in perspective, and see the shades of grey. This may sound dreary, but it’s actually the opposite. When you’re young, everything is black and white, it’s either fantastic or a disaster, but I increasingly find that if something doesn’t go according to plan, my first thought is, it’s not the end of the world. It’s all to do with time running out, how much does it matter? Not a great deal in the overall scheme of things.
My mother used to say that as she grew older, she found that her favourite emotion was relief. I get that now. And gratitude. You’re likely to own your own home (even if you do have to share it with your kiddults.) You’re probably in better health than you would have been a few decades ago. You can afford to be spontaneous and speak your mind without worrying about what people think of you because, let’s face it, the days of pleasing others are behind us.
And let’s not forget counting our blessings for having lived through more light-hearted times than the solemnness of today. Happy days and plenty more to come, so enjoy it while you can.
Sarah Long worked in publishing before giving it all up to move to Paris with her husband and three children. She is the author of And What Do You Do? and The Next Best Thing. Following several years of the Parisian experience, she now lives in London. Invisible Women by Sarah Long is published by Bonnier Zaffre.