No sacred cows

When does ‘middle age’ end and ‘old age’ begin?

19 February 2022

9:00 AM

19 February 2022

9:00 AM

I was a bit irritated by all the millennials saying the Superbowl half-time show made them feel old. The 15-minute musical extravaganza at Sunday’s game was a tribute to the golden age of hip hop and featured Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige, Eminem and Dr Dre. The reason it made so many people in their thirties and early forties feel a bit long in the tooth is that all artists are now candidates for the Hall of Fame. Dr Dre is 56 and Snoop Dogg turned 50 last year. Seeing their idols thickening around the waist and sprouting grey hairs was a mementomori for people who came of age around the millennium.

The reason that bothered me is that I’m even more ancient than Dr Dre. Indeed, I felt old when Snoop Dogg had his first hit with ‘Deep Cover’ in 1992. By that time, my musical tastes were pretty much set in stone. Classic rock and classic soul were my bag, and while I was able to make room for the occasional artist who straddled the two genres — like Prince or Lenny Kravitz — I was reluctant to stray too far from the 1970s. I had a vague sense that hip hop was raw and exciting with some of the same anti-Establishment energy as punk, which I’d been a big fan of in my teens. But I also felt it belonged to the generation immediately beneath me and kept a respectful distance. I didn’t want to be one of those Peter Pan types who tries to get down with the kids by advertising his familiarity with the latest musical trends.

So, anyway, hearing people a decade younger describe themselves as ‘old’ made me feel like the Ancient Mariner — and that may have been the intention. To men in their fifties and sixties, these apparently self-deprecating remarks seem like arrows designed to puncture our amour propre. ‘Move over grandad,’ is the subliminal message. ‘Your time is up.’


Or maybe I’m being paranoid and these self-centred ‘youngsters’ don’t give a second thought to the effect their words have on people my age. One thing I’ve noticed about getting older is that your sense of self-worth becomes increasingly wrapped up with not thinking of yourself as old — and we become more defensive about that with each passing year. For instance, I like to describe myself as ‘middle-aged’, which always provokes gales of laughter from my children. ‘You’re 58, Dad,’ is the stock response. ‘Do you really expect to live until you’re 116?’ When I peevishly explain that the standard definition of ‘middle age’ is 45 to 65, I get blank looks. And when you think about it, the word ‘middle’ does imply the average life-span is between 90 and 130.

Am I, in fact, old? I hesitate to say so because I am aware of the effect that description would have on people a couple of decades older than me. Which is another hallmark of ageing — you become much more solicitous towards people in their seventies and eighties. It’s partly because you’re aware that the elderly gentleman shuffling towards the checkout in Sainsbury’s will be you in a few years’ time, and partly because you get a sting whenever your feelings are disregarded by the younger generation. Being respectful to your elders is a form of karmic insurance.

Then again, casting yourself as a protector of the elderly is also another way of telling yourself you’re not ready for the knacker’s yard. I was very struck by the reaction when I asked for volunteers in the neighbourhood WhatsApp group during the first lockdown to help the older residents pick up their groceries. Every-one who responded positively was over 70 and some were in their eighties. I didn’t have the heart to tell them they were precisely the people I was trying to protect. It’s an iron rule of ageing that you always put the cut-off point — the moment when a person is well and truly past it — about a decade above your current age.

I also think facetiously describing yourself as old is a way of psychologically preparing yourself for the inevitable. I remember suggesting this to Richard Ingrams, who founded The Oldie when he was 55. By jumping the gun, I told him, he was embracing his biggest fear rather than running away from it. He professed to be mystified and told me I was overthinking it. Perhaps I was. But that’s another thing about getting older. As Martin Amis said, once you pass a certain point you no longer have any choice about what to think about when you wake up in the middle of the night.

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