I recently overheard a student of mine complain to friends that she was going to be old soon and it worried her. Her 20th birthday was coming up.
This seems absurd, but the fetishisation of youth as a virtue is pretty well entrenched in our culture. People worry about turning all sorts of ages: 20, 30, 40, 50… not because the numbers mean anything in particular, but because we don’t want to be “old”.
Old is bad.
I have a slightly different way of looking at the age thing. Two ways, actually. My two ‘age theories’. The first one is about where in your lifetime ‘old’ happens. The second is about the phases of life, where you are situated in them, and what they represent.
Theory 1: Where old happens
This is a very simple theory. On a timeline of your life, there are very few things you get to decide. You don’t get to pick when it starts, the pace of progress through it or where it stops.
But let’s imagine you live a long and healthy life. At what point do you want to be old? Because that’s the bit you get at least a little bit of say over. Illness and incapacity notwithstanding, my theory is that the thing that marks you out as being old is the fact that you’ve stopped doing or trying anything new.
People think it’s a binary. If you’re no longer young, then you’re old. I think the majority of life is spent (or rather, should be spent) in an intermediate phase, called ‘being alive’ (or, if you prefer, ‘adulthood’). That’s the bit I’m in at the moment.
But wait… it gets better.
Theory 2: Phases of life
I divide lifetimes up into phases.
From the age of 0-15 you are in ‘Childhood‘. We basically need to figure out how to function and not cause a mess during this period.
15-25 is what we call ‘Youth‘. This is the period during which everything feels Incredibly Important. It’s a time for experimentation, mistake-making and figuring out that it’s not just us – everybody feels awkward and alone and it gets better later on.
25-45 is the first phase of Adulthood. That’s the bit where we get to jettison all of the crap that came along with youth, but keep the fun stuff. It’s where we learn to do most of the important things that will come to define who we are and what we do. We still have lots to work out, of course, but many of the important life stuff falls into place here. Lots of learning and developing happens during this time. It’s a wonderful time of life. We’re active, more or less energetic, we establish important relationships and friendships, have children and so on. Essentially, it’s an amazing period where lots of great stuff happens that sets you up to be who you are to become – and things move forward pretty quickly in all areas of your life. Let’s call it the ‘Foundation‘ phase.
45-65 is Adulthood phase two. This is where you get to BE who you have become and is the time at which you do all the things you will probably be remembered for. Everything leads up to this. Let’s call it the ‘Consolidation‘ phase. All going well – these are the two decades where you do and make the stuff that your life story has been leading up to all along. Time to settle in and get to work on your life’s mission, whatever that may be. Ideally – this is the bit that defines you.
65-85 is Adulthood phase three. You’ve probably achieved most of your big stuff by now, so you can experiment with new hobbies and adventures to please yourself – as well as do all those other things you always thought you might enjoy but never got around to. It’s where you get to sit back a little and enjoy the fact that nobody is particularly expecting you to be massively productive. This is the ‘Reflection‘ phase.
Anything over 85, and you’re well into the bonus round. Anything goes here. Do what you like.
Where I’m at
I’m 45. That puts me right at the very beginning of the Consolidation phase.
It’s time for me to look at all the things I’ve done and learned so far (and I feel like there are quite a lot of those) and try and put them together into a life that is genuinely mine. I have a few ideas about how I’m going to do that – but there’s no particular rush.
Besides, given that I’ve pushed that ‘being old’ marker as far to the right of my timeline as I possibly can, I still have lots of ‘trying new things’ and ‘discovering stuff that I like’ to be done. So my ideas about what Adulthood part 2 is all about could still change. Early days. I have twenty years of this bit ahead of me. And of course – I’m still making some fairly monumental mistakes along the way. Apparently that never stops happening. Shame, really.
I’ve said before that I want to be known for the things I do in my 50s and 60s rather than what I did in my 30s and 40s. Besides, I still feel like I’m just getting started. But this ‘second act’ of adulthood is a nice way to think about where I’m at – and so this theory of ‘life phases’ appeals to me.
Naturally, we can’t predict how things are going to play out – and the amount of variation on this framework will obviously be enormous from person to person – but I think if we act as if we’re expecting a life of optimum duration, then we’ll probably be doing okay according to this model even if things don’t go entirely according to plan.
Of course, if I was Malcolm Gladwell, I’d take that very simple idea, get a dozen case studies together that make the same point over and over, and call it a book. But it fits into a single blog post and I have other things to do. Other books to write.
Ultimately, it’s just an idea that works for me and that I find useful, and you’re welcome to it if it makes sense to you as well.