“Life begins at 40?” – I beg to differ


You’ve heard it a million times – life begins at 40.  I think that catch phrase needs updating. 

Can’t you picture yourself out walking dressed like the couple at left.  Antiquated thinking, that’s what it is.

At age 40, I was still trying to climb the corporate ladder and bumping my head on the ceiling a lot. 

I couldn’t imagine not having a career, and blithely told people –
“I would work even if I were married to Warren Buffet and didn’t need to.  But I was deluded even then.

The notion that ‘life begins at forty’ is a 20th century one; prior to that it was more accurate to say ‘death begins at forty’ as most people didn’t live much beyond that age. Life expectancy in mediaeval England was around 25 years and only reached forty sometime around the turn of the 20th century.

By the 1930s many, in western societies at least, could expect a decent spell of reasonably affluent retirement, free from work and the responsibilities of childcare. Household gadgets like washing machines and vacuum cleaners were becoming more widely used and had begun to relieve women’s drudgery and offer them increasing amounts of leisure time as compared to their Victorian mothers.

In 1932, the American psychologist Walter Pitkin published the self-help book Life Begins at Forty.

Pitkin is often attributed with coining the phrase and, while it is true that his popular book was the cause of it becoming part of the language, he wasn’t the first to express the idea, or even the phrase itself. The take-up of the idea was rapid and ‘life begins at forty’ appears many times in newspapers and other printed records from 1932 onwards.

This was propelled further into the American consciousness in 1937 via a recording of the song ‘Life begins at Forty’, written by Yellen and Shapiro and sung by Sophie Tucker.

However, we need to go back a way to find the origin of the phrase. The great 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer came close to it with his view:

"The first forty years of life give us the text: the next thirty supply the commentary."

In keeping with the reduction of the toil of domestic work and child rearing that began freeing up women’s free time to some extent at the start of the 20th century, the first reference to life beginning at forty refers specifically to women.

Life expectancy has continued to move on and forty now seems more like college from which we are preparing to matriculate into the best part of life. I think the best part of life begins around age 55 when you start getting those senior discounts. 

After 50, we don’t care so much what other people think which leaves us free to pursue our passions.  If I had told my Daddy my life’s ambition was to become a gardener, he would have cut me off.  Now, I judge the rewards of the day by how much dirt is under my fingernails.

Before 50, I measured my success and possessions in terms of what everyone else had achieved.  Now I’m just comfortable in my own skin (tho’ I do wish it was a bit “tighter”) and happy to wake up and greet another day.  

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