People say it all the time. 50 is the new 40. 40 is the new 30. 30 is the new… 30? It’s become sort of cliché to comment on how getting older doesn’t mean what it used to. We, this current generation of whatever decade of life, is so much hipper and fresher and “younger” than the previous generation was at this stage.
Meh. I’m not so sure about that.
The thing is, I actually do think that 40-something is the “new” 20-something, but not for the reasons you’d think. I sure don’t feel younger or fresher than I did in my 20s. And let me assure you, I am nowhere near as hip. Honestly, I’m not even sure if “hip” is a word people use anymore (other than in the context of replacement), which should tell you a lot about how “un-hip” I actually am.
Yet here I am, firmly settled in my 40s, and in many ways I feel like I did in my 20s.
But it’s not because I feel young and carefree. It’s not because I’m rocking the same DMB concert T-shirt or bootcut jeans I did in my 20s. The reason 40-something is the new 20-something are different than that. I feel that same sort of angsty and confused, yet oddly optimistic (about what I’m not sure) that I felt when my early 20s. I feel excited and terrified all at the same time. Just like back then. And just like in my 20s, I have absolutely no use for bullshit of any kind.
There was a stretch of time sometime between then and now, when I felt compelled to play the game. Now? Not so much. I’m a grown ass woman and I’m not here for your bullshit.
Like my 20s, I feel this strange sense of in-between-ness. I feel like I’m on the precipice of the “next thing,” whatever that might be. Back then it was the transition from school to a grown-up job. Now it’s other kinds of transitions. The transition from one career to another. Transition to from the physical stage of parenting to the emotional one. The transition from the exhaustion of carrying screaming toddlers out of the grocery store, trying to keep up with ever-evolving nap schedules, and basically just trying to keep a kid from running into traffic, sticking things in light sockets, and falling out of trees to the exhaustion of late night talks about drugs and sex and how to respond when a friend says something mean, trying to keep up with ever-evolving dangers of TikTok, and trying to keep a teen from totaling the car, failing algebra, or doing something stupid that could result in getting suspended from school.
Despite the terrifying unknowns that lie ahead, I get glimpses of that same kind of 20-something, I-can-handle-anything confidence about it. In my 20s, that confidence was born of naivety; now it’s born of experience. It’s born of empathy, of heartbreak, of survival. I don’t feel confident in the world around me, but I do feel confident in myself.
Despite that surface level confidence, there is constant and almost unidentifiable confusion like I felt in my mid-20s. Below that surface level I-can-handle-anything attitude, what no one talks about is just how confusing and unsettling your 40s can be. Even though I don’t want to admit it, just like I didn’t want to admit it back then either, I have this constant feeling like everyone else has it figured out and I’m the only one who doesn’t know what the fuck I’m doing. So I hide behind the veneer of that surface-level confidence, like I did in my 20s when I was so sure I had it all figured out. But deep down, I’m consumed by the questions and the terror that I’m getting them wrong. Am I good enough parent? Am I helping my kids grow into kind, big-hearted and responsible adults? Am I living a life of meaning and purpose? Am I happy?
The confusion is understandable in some ways. We’re pulled in a million different directions — work obligations, kids, aging parents, friendships, a marriage. Does everyone else feel like they’re failing at everything? Like they’re doing nothing well? Is anyone else confused and too exhausted to even think about why?
We’re either too busy or too scared to talk about it. In my 20s, I ignored all those questions with the demands of a consuming job as a lawyer in Big Law and weekends drinking in bars with friends. In my 40s, I find that I’m ignoring these questions with work responsibilities, my kids’ needs, doomscrolling on social media, and binge-watching/raging at the news.
But the confusion, the questions, the loneliness… it’s all still there.
40 is also the new 20 because you no longer have a tolerance for bullshit of any kind. The trouble is, the intolerance for b.s. also makes you keenly aware of just how prevalent it is. It’s everywhere. I may not have the same naïve ideals, but I do have high expectations and lower tolerance for bullshit, which means I’m disappointed. A lot. In others, yes, but also myself sometimes. I’m pissed a lot. Like fucking ragey. Where is this coming from? Is it hormones? The shortcomings of the human condition? Jerks who aren’t taking the pandemic seriously and the assholes who have been running the country for the past few years? (Pretty sure it’s all of the above.)
So yeah, 40 is the new 20. This is the decade of change and transition, just like our 20s. It’s the decade of IDGAF confidence, just like our 20s. Of ambiguous but persistent confusion, of eager optimism, of no-bullshit impatience … just like our 20s.
And oh yeah, and that old DMB concert t-shirt. Just like our 20s.