A 50-year-old friend recently returned shocked from his high-school reunion. People had aged so badly that he had recognised nobody.
He couldn't even cheer himself with competitive ageing — the involuntary sense of triumph when peers have declined — because nobody recognised him either.
"We're dying," he reported back. "I used to joke that 50 was half-time, but now I realise we're almost done."
I turn 50 next week. I feel overwhelmed by luck at having made it, when several peers haven't. But how to make sense of reaching the fifth floor? I have been doing the reading and interrogating my contemporaries.
It's a demanding age. Often 50 is a career peak: the point when you are experienced but not yet visibly falling apart.
"The median age of an incoming US senator is 51, the average age of a British Member of Parliament is 50, and the average age of a CEO in Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies is 53," writes Rebecca Roache of Royal Holloway, University of London.
In families too, we are the responsible generation. Jenny Joseph's much-loved poem, "Warning" ("When I am an old woman I shall wear purple . . ."), includes this lesser-known verse about middle age:
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry And pay our rent and not swear in the street And set a good example for the children. We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
Perhaps it's the mix of responsibility and physical decline (coupled with a detachment from one's own alien, ageing body) that makes this a generally unhappy age. In most studies of happiness, life satisfaction bottoms out in the early fifties.
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But soon we'll shed responsibility. Already our children (fast surpassing us) can make their own breakfasts. Next we'll be ousted at work. Average earnings for college-educated American men peak at 53, reports compensation-research firm PayScale.
One successful friend now accepts almost all offers of work (and the concomitant exhaustion), given the statistical probability that within five years he'll be out of fashion. Workers over 50 are written off as tired and uninventive.
You therefore need a Plan B: how to fill your life and maintain self-esteem after being canned? I hope to write books, and have time again for friends. But only the lucky reach that stage. My mother was incapacitated by age 58. I've watched several friends hit heart trouble in their fifties and take several steps back.
Looking old is bad, but feeling old is worse. I'm aware of the draining of the life-force. Not just energy but desire too wanes by 50. "Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone," sings John Mellencamp.
Though that's too bleak, clearly no thrill is as sharp at 50 as at 20. Pleasures shift with age, broadly from Playmobil to sex, to good coffee and, finally, to the Golf Channel.
Sometimes I feel an urge to do something significant, to write that big book, but then I get on Twitter and fulfilment seeps into my core, and the moment passes.
My colleague Lucy Kellaway argues that only divorce can reignite drive in fiftysomethings. But I have a pretty good wife and, anyway, I can't face the paperwork.
Yet I wouldn't say my peers have grown disillusioned. We're Generation X: we started out disillusioned — "a generation as pessimistic and ironic as any other that ever roamed the earth", writes Bret Easton Ellis.
On the upside, writes novelist Andrew Sean Greer in Less (2017), at 50 "You're as likeable as you're going to get": the narcissism mostly knocked out of you by life, better able to see and hear others, but still without the rigidity of thought that often creeps up in old age. We have become wiser.
To quote Martin Amis about approaching 50: "You sometimes say to yourself: That went a bit quick. That went a bit quick. In certain moods, you may want to put it rather more forcefully. As in: OY!! THAT went a BIT F**KING QUICK!!! . . . Then 50 comes and goes, and 51, and 52. And life thickens out again. Because there is now an enormous and unsuspected presence within your being, like an undiscovered continent. That is the past."
How best to use the remaining time, suddenly scarce? Nowadays, I often imagine my corpse sitting beside me, tutting: "Turn off the phone, Kuper." (Buddhism advocates a version of this.)
At 50, your paths are narrowing. It's not just that you'll never be an Amazonian copper prospector. Even within your little niche, opportunities diminish remorselessly. But ideally, after ambition has faded, you love your trade for its own sake.
By now, you should have acquired a deep understanding of it that even quicker and more educated younger people cannot match. Savour this last peak.
In Greer's Less, after the hero turns 50, his former boyfriend, in his late seventies and dying, tells him: "I look back at 50 and think, what the f**k was I so worried about? Look at me now. I'm in the afterlife. Go enjoy yourself."
Written by: Simon Kuper
© Financial Times