I’m turning 40 very soon. I’m not sure what’s harder: writing that or reading it. I’ve been nervously eyeing 40 with each passing year in my 30s. 40 has always been off in the distance like a bad storm in the horizon of a beautiful day that I hope will veer off in another direction and not spoil things. Every birthday since 30 when people asked me, “How old are you now?” I’ve basically been saying, “not 40.” 31, 33, 36—it didn’t matter what number it was. It just wasn’t effing 40. But that party is about to end, and to help me accept the fact that I’ll soon be joining a club no one wants to be in, I’m exploring the question: why does turning 40 suck so bad?
I think this idea of expectation plays strongly into the dread people have about their 40th birthday. By the time you’re about to turn 40 you’ve heard an endless stream of people griping about it. Waiting to turn 40 is like sitting in a traffic jam waiting to drive past a really bad accident. You complain about the fact that everyone’s rubber necking and slowing things down and then you get there and right before you drive past you promise yourself you won’t do it, you’ll put your foot on the accelerator and you won’t look. But you do. You take a peak because you’re afraid to die and looking at that accident and complaining about reaching the fourth decade since you wormed into this world are extensions of your fear. You’re not ready for the Jaws of Life or feigning shock in the doorway of your sister’s house at your poorly concealed surprise 40th party. You’re not ready to be old yet.
Another reason why the idea of turning 40 stinks is that it makes you feel like a full-fledged adult. You’re not the underdog anymore. You’re the same age as some people who have led modern-day nations into war, run billion-dollar multinationals and broken professional sports records and launched second careers owning their own teams. There’s no more putting it off, you simply need to get your shit together. At 40, there’s an expectation that you’re at least getting close to this. A house. RRSPs. An emergency slush fund of cash. An informed opinion on the geopolitical landscape. A respectable Twitter following. Great relationships with your siblings. Better ones with your spouse and kids—if you’ve managed to get some of those. All of these things or some or one of them should be in the bag for you by now. After all, a couple hundred years ago, you were most likely dead by 40, so the begging question for many people becomes: what exactly have you got to show for yourself at the peak age of medieval life expectancy?
Hitting 40 means taking stock of who you are and what you’ve achieved and the reality that you’re faced with doesn’t always match your expectations. This doesn’t apply to everyone of course, but for many it does. Measured against the numerical high watermark of middle age—40—many people can feel down about the results.
There’s also the simple fact that 40 makes people feel old. Nothing too complicated there. The signs are all there for me. My hair is thinning and losing its lustre on top of my head, but in my nose and on my ears its amping up its game. Those little injuries that came and went quickly are like my hangovers nowadays: they stick around like guests that won’t take the hint and get the hell out. And the worst one? I think I actually referred to popular music as “the stuff kids listen to these days” (I’m not sure if I’m actually ready to admit that yet).
Of course, none of this makes sense. Youth, in my books, is all about perspective. How old you allow yourself to feel. I know 70 year-olds that still have loads of youthful spirit. (Yes, they have loads of wrinkles, too, but let’s stay focused on what’s inside – the stuff that truly matters!) Turning 40 (or 50 or 60 for that matter) doesn’t rob automatically rob you of your youth unless you let it. I say this because I have to believe it. What else do I have? When you’re teetering on the edge of 40, you need something to cling to, right? And there’s hope yet according to Richard Feloni in his article 20 People Who Became Highly Successful After Age 40. Henry Ford didn’t produce any Model T’s until after he was 40, and Stan Lee hadn’t published any Spider Man comics until after he’d celebrated his 40th.
Reading stories like these, I guess I need to spend more time looking up, not down.
This post was last modified July 15, 2015.