When you’re in your teens and 20s, older people frequently tell you you’re in “the prime of life.” As someone who was struggling to find a career and form good relationships, I found this deeply alarming. Were they saying that things would get harder as I aged? Because I was already finding life pretty darn hard. Luckily, I’ve found that those people were 100 percent wrong. Below, the nine ways I’ve found that life can be better for us fortysomethings than it was 20 years ago.
1. We have some control over our careers. In my 20s, I bumbled around, not totally clear on what I wanted to be doing, alternating between lame temp jobs and stabs at a real career. I was afraid to turn anything down, so I worked weird and/or long hours, except for the stretches when I couldn’t get any work at all. Now I have some direction, a resume, a chosen field. Some doors have closed, sure, but there’s peace in having just one focus.
2. We have some control over our lives, period. In college, I struggled through core requirements I wasn’t interested in, endured jobs I didn’t like, and dated men who were wrong for me. I often felt helpless to create the life I wanted for myself—I actually didn’t even know what kind of life I wanted for myself. Maybe some young women know exactly what they want and how to get it at 25, but for a lot of us, direction and control are acquired skills.
3. We now know that the game is longer than we thought it was. I used to think that everything in one’s life had to be settled by, say, 33. But women my age are reinventing themselves all the time—nursing school at 38, law school at 45. When I was younger, I would have thought that was “too late” for a second career. But now I know that the schooling is part of life too. Not to get all “the journey is also the destination” on your ass, but I do think that women in their 40s get less worked up about whether embarking on a new project is “worth it.” The project itself is worth it, no matter what the endgame is.
4. The sex is better. I watch the TV show Girls through my fingers because the sex scenes make me cringe. Not because of Lena Dunham’s figure—like I’m one to judge—but because of how many of the encounters are so lousy. By the time we reach our 40s, whether we’re single or partnered, we’ve gotten choosier. We only have sex with people we want to have sex with. We know what we want and what to ask for.
5. We have better relationships. In my 20s, I dated a LOT of losers: men who were selfish or unreliable, or, on the flip side, who were really into me but I wasn’t into them. (But it took me too long to break things off because they were perfect “on paper.”) By the time I met my husband, I had started, finally, to be attracted to men who were good as well as good-looking.
6. We’re better friends, and our friends are better. I also had friends who were unreliable or even mean-spirited, but I didn’t yet have the confidence or social skills to (gently) cut them loose. By your 40s, you know how to recognize a quality friend, and you have the skills to maintain those friendships without either smothering or neglecting the other person.
7. We’re (sort of) in control of our money. So, I’m never going to be rich, and sure, I worry about money sometimes. But what happens with money isn’t a surprise anymore, like when I was 21 and would go to the ATM and there just…wouldn’t be anything there. Or my checks would bounce because I subtracted wrong. Or my mom had to explain “withholding” from paychecks. Things are generally predictable, which feels like a huge weight of anxiety lifted off my shoulders.
8. We don’t care (as much) about what people think of us. Oh, so much of my younger years was spent wondering if someone liked me, if they were mad at me, if someone secretly thought I was lame. But now, at 41, I know I’m lame. I’m not really trying to hide anything anymore: I will never be thin, or fully dressed and made-up by 7 a.m., or have cool, outdoorsy hobbies, or have a perfectly decorated house. Everyone who’s stuck around to be my friend is okay with that. It’s a relief to stop pretending to be more together than I am.
9. We have more empathy. Young people are judgmental, or at least I was anyway. I thought that if something went wrong for someone, they must have done something to deserve it—that they weren’t “smart.” As I get older, I realize how much luck plays into everything: whether we meet the right partner, whether we chose the right major for a good career, whether we were able to find a steady job. My own difficulties and unexpected struggles—and bad decisions—have made me more empathetic towards others also facing challenges. I feel more at peace with the world because of it.
All of these things translate, for me at least, to more happiness. I’m happy raising my kids, nurturing my relationships, plugging along at my career. It’s a vastly better state of mind than I had when I was 25, when I felt scattered and unmoored. It’s almost like this is the prime of life.