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How to be 39

I never used to understand why people lied about their age. I didn’t bother. It seemed to me utterly unimportant, and while I pretended to choke with panic on my 30th birthday – it felt like something I was supposed to do – and spoke in hushed tones about turning 40 one day, my age, the actual number, being older, never unsettled me.

But now I am 39, I get it. I totally get it. Not because I am ashamed or embarrassed to be older and no longer in the first flush of youth, but because other people, of all ages, can use that magic number against you. And it’s really weird. All my hangups about being older, of which there are still mercifully few, don’t come from within. It’s everyone else who’s the problem.

First of all, you get the guessing game. So I have greying hair, but have yet to run to the infamous middle-age spread. I probably don’t have as many wrinkles as some men five years my junior, and my clothes are on the conservative side of contemporary, with the odd brightly coloured T-shirt or trainer thrown in. If you don’t volunteer your age straight away, people will try to get it out of you, or attempt to work it out from your cultural references.

I’d been working somewhere for about five months when, over a drink, a colleague confided: “We’ve all been trying to work out how old you are”.

I was mystified. “You have? Why?”

She then described the conundrum above, about how my age wasn’t placeable because of the way I looked and acted and spoke.

“Well, why didn’t you ask?”

“Well, it’s not exactly the done thing, is it?”

But I think I would rather they asked than speculated and whispered, as if I had something to hide.

“I’m 37,” I said, as I was then. They reacted with surprise, but also excitement at being the one to draw the confession out of me. And it really felt like a confession too – I was more annoyed at myself for giving it away, admitting I was ancient and perhaps too old to write about pop music than I should’ve been for the entire office gossiping about my age.

Other times when I’ve had to reveal my real age, like I am being unmasked as an imposter, I have regretted it immediately because now my age would become a “thing” about me, overtaking all my other attributes. Some of them may be unpleasant, but I’d rather my character traits weren’t buried beneath such a shallow, uncontrollable thing as my age, like a huge pair of knockers or a big nose or male pattern baldness.

I am not just me any more; I am 39.

There are much more noxious forms of bigotry to contend with, but ageism still hurts, and even though I feel I have a long way to go before I’m actually officially old, I experience it most days. I seem to spend many conversations with younger people stealthily apologising for no longer being one of them. And of course I still want to carry on doing things I like doing: going to bars and parties and shopping and the gym. Being visible. Alive.

Sometimes the oppressive stare and bewilderment of younger people – guys especially, of course – makes me feel uncomfortable. My face, with greying hair atop, no longer fits, and that makes me feel sad.

The best I can hope for these days is that someone will ‘congratulate’ me on not looking 39. Checkout operators have ceased ironically asking me for ID when I buy Tanqueray, so I am denied even that pleasure that over-25s adore so much.

Some younger people express amazement I may be remotely knowledgable about modern life, or have opinions, or use emoji. When they find out how old I am, they change the way they speak to me. I am parent-zoned.

The world is theirs; I’m just a lodger who’s slept on the sofa too long. When am I going to find a place of my own, eh?

I don’t care that none of them want to fuck me – I have a boyfriend who does – but I do get a vibe from them (vibe, what a cringey, uncool word to use) that somehow I am less useful, less important, just generally less, because my pedometer has notched up more digits.

Older people play their part too, of course. Am I getting married? Why haven’t I bought a house yet? What about a pension? Shouldn’t I be going on more holidays? Even people in their fifties, sixties and seventies have very firm ideas about who and where I should be at 39. When did everyone get so obsessed with milestones?

Earlier this week I was alerted to a piece by a gay writer on the Peter Pan syndrome, how older gay men are ruining it for the young by refusing to grow up, continuing to go out barhopping and clubbing well into their late forties. I would rather carpet my entire house in wasps than go clubbing these days, but I was disappointed on behalf of the gay guys out there who still just want to have a good time. When did fun become the private property of the youthful?

I expected the author to be the usual kind of scribe behind these thinly veiled envy attacks – a jaded old gay man who’s finally seen the error of his ways, flushed all his coke down the toilet, found love with a similar retired clubber and moved to the country to raise poultry. But no, on closer inspection of the guy’s byline pic, it was an embryo with veneers. A young person telling us all we should grow up, buy a couple of dogs, and make some space at the bar for another droid with a 26” waist.

I laughed. I would love him to write a follow-up in, say, 25 years’ time, when he realises that there isn’t a switch you flick once you’re in your forties to turn up off the fun gene. Maybe it’s to make up for the oppression of their younger days or maybe they just don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks, but there’s no age limit on having a good time. And if it’s all meaningless and they go home at night and cry because they’re not 21 any more and just want to settle down, more fool them, but that’s their choice.

They say youth is wasted on the young, but I don’t agree. I’m glad they have it, and misuse it, and devalue it and waste it. Only when they have done all that can they age – if they are lucky – and realise just how much power they had, what could’ve been, and how they let it slip through their fingers. Youth is a punishment, meted out retrospectively, when it’s long gone.

Your jokes about my old age? They are boomerangs – you’d better duck.

I don’t have a problem with younger people. Despite what I say above, I find many of them interesting and funny and smart and I love having younger friends – but only because of their character traits, not how many candles they are burning.

I’m not bitter, or drowning in cynicism. I’m just puzzled. What is the magic age where you’re still relevant but mature enough to be taken seriously? It’s the blink of an eye. I missed it. We all did. Does it matter?

The young think older people want to be them, envy them, wish they were them, but they are way off-beam. We don’t want to be you, as you are now. We want to be a younger us, with the headspace and experiences we have accrued over the years. We want all our hindsight to be foresight, our lessons learned from mistakes made. All the ways you are about to fuck up, we already did. We’re not interested in going through all that again.

The only thing you have that we desire is the luxury of time. There are still so many fantastically grown-up yet irresponsible mistakes for us to make; how ever will we fit them all in?

More like this:
Why being 39 ruined going to the hairdresser for me
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