This Is 40. Really? Is It?
I admit it: it feels pedestrian to even write this. I’m not a snob (well…), it’s just so…ordinary to gripe about the woes of being 40.
But I accidentally read this article this morning, and I’ve accidentally read others just like it in recent months. Perhaps it’s because I just turned 40 a month and three days ago (one thing these articles all have in common is the counting; they all are sure to tediously clock the days until or since this irreversible and unavoidable milestone) that this accident recurs.
In writing this piece, I think (hope) I’m fucking over it.
Apparently, turning 40 means a few common elements among we Gen Xers. As is typical of our generation, we attempt to focus on the accomplishments rather than the physical attributes (though those are forever a present subplot). People (mostly women) are hung up on what they once envisioned versus what they have actually accomplished. Perhaps this is because, back in our twenties, the scuttlebutt centered around how our generation was destined to fail, to be less productive and industrious than our parents’. How we were selfish and lazy and slackery and spoiled. We were all fucked up because our parents were divorced and we had no moral compass and we only wanted to play on that Atari.
Most of these lowered expectations really didn’t pan out. We learned quickly how to take the anti-establishmentarianism carefully cultivated by us latch-key kids in our younger days and turn it into an Internet start-up with a climbing wall or a techie commercial gleefully played under a tune by The Cure. We found ways to sell out that went far beyond the imagination of our parents’ generation. They hit adulthood in roughly the Mad Men era, and we took their carefully psychoanalyzed and packaged bullshit and rubbed Teen Spirit in every crevasse. Go us! We succeeded in both being our dyspeptic selves AND the sell-outs we never imagined ourselves becoming.
That’s our generation (and admittedly a very homogenous swath of it) in broad strokes.
In reality, we are actually more magnanimous and certainly more thoughtful than the previous paragraph suggests. Though we are a small generation population-wise, we out-volunteer the ginormous generations: the Baby Boomers and the Millennials. Those of us who are college-educated also wait longer to have kids and have fewer of them (thankfully) or do not have them at all (yahoo!). We marry older or do not marry, perhaps as a nah-nah-n-nah-nah response to our parents who turned the divorce rate up to eleven in the 70’s and 80’s. All of this speaks to an increased thoughtfulness in at least our Big Life choices. We are not, it seems, completely on auto-pilot, and that’s a good thing.
But we are also a generation that has consistently lived in a dangerously youth-obsessed culture, which I suppose can add stresses to even the most self-aware and enlightened. It doesn’t matter how much one highlights her hair, does yoga, or eats kale: she’s gonna get older. Something is going to sag. Many things are. You can cover the gray hairs, but they spring up like wiry beanstalks anyway, standing at attention and begging to be noticed. We change. Our ideas change. Our tolerance for all things (alcohol, insanity, inane conversation) wanes. We are not who we once were.
So the fuck what? It is hoped that, at 25, you were holding your liquor a hell of a lot better than you did at ten. If at ten years old you were heaving over the toilet in the Trainspotting-esque public bathroom while a less-than-mediocre punk band roared outside, you need help. You need help if you’re doing this at 40, too. In that way, you’re more like ten than 25 now. Yay for youth!
40 has become this benchmark at which we take stock. Movies tell us so (see re: This Is 40). We measure our lives in coffee spoons based on the random accomplishments of our parents or our parents’ generation or by any group who is perceived as having done all sorts of arbitrary things before turning 40 and, apparently, slouching towards death. But we’re all living longer, and many of us are living healthier, and at the very least we are hopefully living smarter than those who came before. If we are not, it’s our own damn faults because we have access to so much that makes us capable of longer, healthier, and smarter.
And whatever you didn’t achieve? Boo-hoo. The reason our younger selves had such high expectations of our now selves is that they didn’t have any responsibility for being — they just had to work on becoming. It’s easy to look ahead 15 years and paint a rosy picture that has nothing to do with reality. That’s as much about reality as reality TV is. Also, a quick side note: if you watch reality TV and actually identify with any of the people on The Bachelor or whatever insipid shit you imbibe, you should feel shame (not for imbibing stupid shit–we all do that, but for seeing yourself reflected in it). You have let down your entire generation and you SHOULD feel like a failure. You’ve done the rest of us wrong. All other late-30-to-early-40 somethings get a do-over. Press the reset button, realign your expectations to your current reality, and move forward with the knowledge that self-reflection is healthy, awesome, and healing, but self-absorption is lame and really does nothing to help the false image that Gen Xers are selfish navel-gazers. It’s not actually true, so don’t re-write our narrative to match those mis-aligned expectations determined by drunk statisticians in 1990. You’re not doing yourself justice, and you’re pissing me off.
Welcome to 40, bitches!
Me, dancing like it’s 1999 (possibly to the actual song 1999), 39 years, 363 days: