Muddle of middle age

Too old to rock ‘n’ roll, too young to die could well be the anthem as one hits the mid-40s — but, really, what does it mean to be a mid-lifer in 2021?

By Sushmita Bose

Published: Fri 26 Feb 2021, 10:44 PM

45-year-old female friend went to a GP, who advised a chest X-Ray. She swanned into the radiology room in her peplum top and ripped jeans, was asked a few questions — including “Are you pregnant?” to which she replied, “Gosh, I hope not!” — got the deed done, and went to sit outside in the waiting area.

Minutes later, the man who led the inquisition came out to apologise to her. “I’m sorry I asked if you are pregnant, I didn’t realise you are 45.”

“Now that,” she recounted, “was definitely one of the lowest points in my life. I mean, it was not so much about ‘How dare he?’, more like ‘OMG, is this the beginning of the end — am I on the road to perdition?’”

The clinic she visited was — still is probably — housed inside a mall. She spent the next half-hour crisscrossing the premises aimlessly before sitting down in a café and ordering herself a double shot of espresso. Then she called me up to narrate the incident. “Has such a thing ever happened to you?” she asked at the end of it.

“Not as staggeringly invasive,” I said, “but, yes, once a doc did convey to me, ‘You are in really good shape… for your age’.”

60 may be touted as the new 30, but it could well be a pep-up line when what smacks you in the face is a litany of absolutes. The dreaded midlife crisis. A perception of irrelevance in a din of youthful clamour. The shape shifting of body physiology — not because of eating habits but hormonal, chemical, metabolic imbalances. Most tellingly, as Dick Van Dyke eloquently summed up, “You get your first annoying thoughts of mortality, you begin more serious questioning of not just the meaning of your life but of what’s working, what’s not working, and what you still want, and all of a sudden you don’t know which way is up.”

And yet, the age of millennials seems to have been infectious, ushering in a new dynamic for mid-lifers. As with technology and its adaptability, ageing is falling in line with freshly-harvested aspirations. Unapologetically. Back home in Delhi, where no one bats an eyelid before giving you family member status (“uncle”, “aunty”, “didi” etc), a ‘middle-aged’ male friend, who refuses to get his hair coloured each time his barber makes a case for it, was most chuffed when a 20-something ‘young man’ — earphones in place, smartphone in hand — offered him his seat in the metro. “Uncle, please sit, you shouldn’t be standing.”

My friend was happy to snag the seat because he was actually tired. “I had gone for a 4-km run at Lodhi Gardens, and not driven because I wanted to walk to and from the metro stations, both ways. And anyways, it doesn’t bother me when I am referred to as ‘uncle’. What’s wrong in being uncle cool?”

Given that in a few years, many millennials will be middle aged themselves, here’s looking at if the grass is greener on the other side.

‘Why do older people have to be laidback despite being capable?’

During an earlier stint in Dubai, the magazine I was then editing once ran a readers’ competition. The winner was a 42-year-old woman. The 20-something contest coordinator called me to say, “The prize is a ‘fitted’ dress, this woman is over 40, what is she going to do with a slinky number — can we identify another winner please?”

I dismissed the request, but when I bring up this story with PR consultant Michelle Silva, she’s in splits. “Listen, I’m on the wrong side of 50, but I wear exactly what I want — at times, I find myself shopping for the same stuff as 18-years-olds.”

It’s another matter most folks don’t believe her when she reveals her age. “It’s not just the way I dress or look, it’s also the way I behave, the energy — positive please! — I have.” She radiates joie de vivre, I tell her; she attributes it to her tendency of gravitating towards younger people for company. “Besides, what is this ‘acting my age’ nonsense, there’s no such thing, just be who you are, no?”

She doesn’t have a single memory of herself being ageist. “In fact, as a youngster, I used to wonder why certain older people were laidback despite being capable. What could possibly be holding them back? I had no answers.”

At college reunions and schooldays throwback gatherings, she chooses not to hang around those who appear jaded. “If and when I encounter any of those types, I [very calmly] step away, choose not to engage with them.”

One awesome way to avoid getting pulled into the alleged ‘middle aged’ rut is to keep plucking yourself out of comfort zones. Michelle constantly learns new crafts (“at times, I hire a teacher; at times, I watch YouTube tutorials”), cultivates more hobbies. “Take something as basic as nurturing a plant: it becomes a project for me, I even do extensive research on what kind of soil is best for them. Makes me happy.”

What also makes her happy is when she sees people “doing exactly what they want to do”. As long as they behave responsibly.

‘Don’t want to stop, superseding targets makes me feel great’

Elizabeth Routley-Driver has always hit the ground running, having participated in myriad (and counting) international marathons (and ultramarathons); in the UAE, she’s the much-feted, reigning superstar of Dubai Creek Striders (DCS), where she gives “youngsters” a run for their money.

She’s 65, at the end line of middle age’s sociological categorisation, but she only believes in starting points. “I have no intention to stop yet.” “Use it or lose it” is her credo, and “I intend to ‘use it’ for as long as I’m possibly able. I accept that one day I may not be physically able to — but today is not that day.”

A lifelong sports enthusiast and a former healthcare professional, Elizabeth, now a human resources head honcho, has been living in the UAE since 1983. A routine weekday sees her wake up at 4am and go for a run before work. “On weekends, I run — albeit slowly now — for as long as I possibly can,” she says matter-of-factly. “Setting personal challenges for each weekend is something I look forward to all week. Hitting the targets and often superseding them makes me feel great… at times exhausted but very happy.”

Falling in love, dating, having fun, being silly — middle aged people have the right to do all that. Yes, there may be judgements drawn every now and then. “But it’s up to you to deal with it.” Her advice? Don’t surround yourself with negative people, and “have the strength, belief and confidence in yourself to do things that make you happy… remember, as long as you are not harming others, that’s the way forward.”

She has an inverse insight into the “younger lot”, which is bound to make mid-lifers feel they are placed better, at a vantage point. “They [millennials and post-millennials] often seem lost and easily influenced by social media. Endless selfies to seek reassurance and self-worth is not a positive contributor to either good mental or physical health.”

While her husband and son are both in sync with her ‘lifestyle’, her brothers ask her from time to time: “Why are you still running at your age?” Her answer invariably is: “Because I can — and I hope to, for many years yet to come.”

‘It’s short sighted to ignore mid-lifers as consumers’

In the domain of marketing and advertising, the past decade has been the storyboard of a battle between millennials and mid-lifers. As a “middle-aged” man, Niranjan Gidwani was CEO of Eros Group, handling brands directly co-related to a much younger audience base.

These days, he’s the consultant director for the group, and believes that growing up at a time when there was not much technology to speak of has accorded his generation far better horse sense. “For instance, I know where to draw boundaries — that makes me feel good. I don’t like this overdose of technology, which is enabling a generation to get nasty on social media and have an opinion on everything under the sun. Yes, there are many in my age group hooked to ruling buzzwords like instant gratification and tweeting as well, but we [mostly] don’t open up our personal lives as much and have less angst [about irrelevant issues].”

Yet, Niranjan’s been a fast learner, collating data from new-age consumer habits and activating those as propositions without feeling like a fish out of water. And consequently proven that though it can be “unsettling” to be tech-enabled all the time, it can be done while keeping a distance — a prerogative his generation has a claim on. Simultaneously, it is critical to always ride the learning curve.

“Everything will move way faster in the years to come, so we, the mid-lifers, need to know what is par for the course — that way, we won’t feel isolated.”

A sense of alienation creeps up when he sees markets harping on targeting millennials (and post millennials). “They constitute a way smaller chunk of the purchasing consumer aggregate than the older lot — so I’m not really sure how that works,” he shrugs. “It’s short sighted to ignore mid-lifers just because there is a more ‘conventional’ business model associated with them. So yes, I do have a problem with being ‘left out’ from communication strategies.”

What does he feel about the ‘millennial’ jargon of “grabbing eyeballs”? “Do eyeballs actually translate into action?” he asks. “For all you know, one is trying to influence a catchment that’s already influenced. And in the meantime, say if businesses were to go offline totally, we will be doing away with a cache of brick-and-mortar stores — which is not good for economic health.”

In his personal space, Niranjan doesn’t believe he’ll ever be feeling mentally old. “I don’t need to wear red trousers and pink T-shirts — I’d rather look my age but feel young by staying connected with the younger generation, mentoring them — and I like to do it on my own terms.” In his middle-aged way. “I’d rather meet in person, share a breakfast.” And hope they pick up a cue or two from him.

‘The generation gap is not really about age, it’s about involvement’

“Middle age is having a choice between two temptations and choosing the one that’ll get you home earlier,” said funny man Dan Bennett. Ali Khwaja, who teaches MBA at the American University of Sharjah, points out that whenever he’s sitting with a group of youngsters, and it’s late at night, everyone’s all amped up, having fun, he says to himself, “I need to go to sleep, I cannot do this any longer.”

Ever since he’s crossed 40, his “body’s ability to heal and process has slowed down, I now have to be careful about what I eat — imagine, there was a time I could live on fast food and feel absolutely fine!”

Turning the corner has also meant he’s had to start thinking seriously about savings and wondering what retired life would be like. “It hits me the most when I see my daughter planning for college next year — I’m like, wait, going to college was a big, big deal for me, and now my next generation’s following suit? How old am I?”

But then, what gives him a reality check are his friends, some older than him, who are planning kids now, in their middle age. “It’s all good,” he laughs easily. “It’s ultimately a life choice, whatever and whenever one wants to do something.”

At university, where his students belong in the 18 to 23 age group, Ali likes to see himself as “a big brother or a senior student”. The relationship is symbiotic. “I learn so much from them — the perspectives of a generation born into Internet, the obsession with Tiktok, the lingo, the fashion, they’re all fascinating. I know now that the generation gap is not about age, it’s about how involved one is.”

Looking ahead, he doesn’t see himself “retiring”. “I see myself not doing a job with the same intensity as I do now, but not be ‘retired’ the way my parents’ generation was.”

Ali pushes himself to get out. He rarely uses the weekend to ‘recover’ just because he’s past a certain age. “I get out and about, go camping, ride a bike, be active.”

It’s the best way to stay connected with life.

‘Because someone is younger doesn’t mean they are better, right?’

Talking about middle age, Dale Hanson Bourke had written, “We are no longer in that part of life when we simply respond to parents, children, spouses, jobs, the PTA, and recycling schedules. We are not spending every single minute trying to keep everyone else happy.”

Rekha Tourani, social worker and entrepreneur, who’s lived in Dubai for 25 years, would agree. It’s a time when she’s, at long last, living for herself. “Middle age is easily the best stage of my life,” she says, “because I’ve earned it. And I’m confident and comfy in my skin. I can do whatever I want and I am not answerable to anyone.”

She’s come into her own, particularly with regard to how she talks and how she reacts — especially to criticism. “So, I’m proud of my age. Now I can afford to sit back and contemplate life’s ups and downs — that have taught me so much.” Most importantly, middle age whispers to her she still has a lot more to do.

Whenever she’s out with her kids — one of her boys is married, the other engaged — people think she’s their older sister. “Meet my sons, I say, and they do a double take.” Her sons tell her she’s the one who needs to grow up. “I joke, laugh, discuss everything under the sun, no holds barred — and, no, I don’t think that’s inappropriate”.

She works out twice a day, come what way. “I am fit physically, sharp mentally.” Against that backdrop, aging is beautiful.

Is the market ageist? “It may well be, but, honestly, it doesn’t bother me. When I go to buy running shoes, for example, I know that the brand ambassador of the model is a young person. But just because the kids are wearing those, does that make me less unfit? And just because someone is younger, doesn’t mean they are better, right?”

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