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

At the start of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Hugh Grant’s character can’t remember at which of his friends’ weddings he has just turned up late. “Who is it today?” he asks caddishly, as he rushes into his pew. Personally, I’m not sure I ever went to so many weddings that I lost track of the couples involved. But I’m wondering if that might happen with 40th birthdays.

All of my friends seem to be turning 40, including those who are turning 41 but never got a chance to celebrate because of the pandemic. Over dinners, at drinks, we are working through the backlog. Never let a round number go to waste.

One nice thing about a 40th birthday party, unlike an 18th or a 30th, is that it doesn’t end with an awkward silence over the bill and a trip to a sticky-floor dive bar. Nobody throws up. Nobody steals your coat. But the format is a bit uncertain: are there speeches? Is this the moment for tributes? And that reflects a nagging question: is 40 actually any kind of landmark?

Let’s start with the phrase “life begins at 40”. Its popularity dates to a best-selling 1932 self-help book of that title by a curious American academic called Walter B Pitkin. It 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” any more for a different reason, which is that it would be a transparent attempt to paper over decline. My friends are trying to pretend that there is no decline. We are fine! We know how to work the internet! We do not need knee replacements! Or at least we do not realise that we need knee replacements!

Forty today doesn’t feel like a new beginning: the chances are that you will, in life terms, be mid-mouthful. For starters, you may still be preoccupied with young children. In the early 1980s, nearly three-quarters of children in the UK were born to women under the age of 30. Now most are born to women in their thirties. So lie-ins do not begin at 40. Nor can you join a golf club or have a spiritual reawakening, given the demands of school pick-up.

At the same time, many of us approaching 40 do not feel truly adult. We don’t wear ties to work. We can’t do DIY. We are lucky to still have our parents in good health. Let us not mention housing costs and pensions, both of which infantilise us financially. All in all, we feel like we are role-playing turning 40, not actually doing it.

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

The argument that 40 is a landmark rests partly on longevity. Checking the Office for National Statistics website, I see that men turning 40 now have a life expectancy of 84. We’re pretty much halfway. (We have only a 5.7 per cent chance of living to three figures — which wasn’t quite what umpteen headlines about medical breakthroughs had led me to expect.) At the last British general election, 39 was the tipping point age at which someone was more likely to vote Conservative than Labour.

Add in the fact that all landmarks invite comparison and reflection, and turning 40 can take on a momentousness. You might as well do things now if you’re going to do them at all. It’s not too late and not too early. At one recent party, I tried to convince the woman on my left that now was a good age to get a tattoo, because we no longer had to worry about what it would look like in decades to come. I cited the example of David Dimbleby, who had a scorpion tattooed on his shoulder aged 75. She was unconvinced.

Looking for guidance about what 40 should feel like, I looked up Pitkin’s Life Begins at Forty and its 1933 follow-up More Power to You! He advocates that after turning 40, readers should lead a Simplified Life. Parenting should be reduced to a minimum, as part of a drive to save one’s energy. Other tips include: “Never open second-class mail. This saves several hundred calories a year” and “Never pick up things 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 commencement speech. It was released in my late teens; I guess this was what passed for life advice before motivational podcasts. “Trust me,” says Luhrmann’s narrator, “in 20 years [ie, now] you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked.”

A nice thought, but one sadly not borne out by the photos. The song goes on: “Don’t waste your time on jealousy; sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself.” Now we’re talking. I am a sucker for such saccharine statements, although I can’t claim they will have much impact: I don’t always wear sun cream.

Shortly before my last set of 40th celebrations, I stumbled across a list of “103 Bits of Advice 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 need to write this down because I will remember it’.” (True: always write things down.) “There is no such thing as being ‘on time.’ You are either late or you are early. Your choice.” (True, but hard.) “It’s thrilling to be extremely polite to rude strangers.” (True, but impossible.) “If you loan someone $20 and you never see them again because they are avoiding paying you back, that makes it worth $20.” (No one has ever asked me for $20 then disappeared, but I will bear this in mind.)

And so on. There was enough wisdom in Kelly’s 103 tips to form a good set of 40th birthday resolutions. Reading them, I felt decidedly un-old. It wasn’t so much that they emphasised the world of possibility ahead; it’s more that I realised I could never have written such a list.

Kelly’s list is notable for its confidence: he has just turned 70 and he lives in California. Meanwhile, I, aged nearly 40 and living in London, simply hadn’t made up my mind about what the good life consists of. Life is like one of those whiteboards you find when you walk into a recently used meeting room. There are some gaps to write your own thoughts, but as the board fills up, you have to decide which bits of inherited wisdom to rub off and replace. I am still pretending that I won’t have to use the eraser.

Speaking to my 40-ish peers, they too do not feel old. They have, however, stopped feeling young. Born in the early 1980s, we are millennials, but only on a technicality. We are gatecrashers, and in truth we don’t belong to that more interesting demographic. More and more, we feel unmoored from true millennials and Gen Z. I admire these younger generations’ honesty about mental health, but it feels quite foreign. In quiet moments, I might admit that their use of technology baffles me. Most of them haven’t even watched Four Weddings and a Funeral, for goodness’ sake. But if you can’t feel young, then not feeling old is the next best thing.

In Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell wrote of the “feeling of relief, almost of pleasure” of becoming down and out. “You have talked so often of going to the dogs — and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.” For years, the number 40 stands on the horizon like some daunting hill. By the time you arrive there, at the endless 40th birthday dinners, you’ve assimilated it. You can stand it. Another peak now looms in the distance. Fifty? Now that really does look bad.

Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer

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