The Sad Truth, Guys: Your 40s Suck

When I turned 40, my mom pulled me aside and said, “The 40s were the best years of my life. Enjoy them.”

I love my mom, and she has rarely led me astray—except about this. Because she was dead wrong. The 40s are not the best of times.

Why would a usually optimistic and upbeat 49-year-old say this? Because it’s true (and I wrote this before my heart issue). If your life was an NFL season, your 40s would be a trap game. If it was a table game, it would be a sucker’s bet.

It’s not so much that the 40s have the worst quality of life. All in all, I feel pretty good. And as I get older, I expect that health issues and chronic pain will make the day-to-day more difficult.

But what is unique to the 40s is that if you’ve put care into your first two decades as an adult, you might enter your 40s positioned nicely: rewarding job, a growing nest egg, a durable and satisfying primary relationship, kids, the whole deal. You probably feel like you’ve got the world by the tail.

But all those good things actually mean that you have an enormous amount at risk: all of these things are stressed for guys in their 40s:

  1. It’s unlikely that you’ll actually change your life station in a positive way. No matter how big a raise and promotion you get, you’re unlikely to escape the demons of your mortgage or of struggling for a way to put the kids through college. However, a career calamity is just an ogre-boss or a downturn in the business cycle away, and if you are let go to save costs, it’s unlikely you’ll hook back on anywhere near where you were previously (and out the nest-egg money that kept you afloat). And that’s for those who are relatively well-off. Researchers recently discovered that working-class white men (and women) in their 40s and 50s were in the midst of a historic, despairing rise in death rates.
  2. Also, guys in their 40s often get the urge to be their own bosses, to use their hard-won experience to strike out on their own. Sometimes it works out; often it doesn’t. Hence, the median age for bankruptcy filings is 45—even with health care increasingly stressing elderly, middle-class people.
  3. Busy guys can be lonely guys. Research shows that guys make up two-thirds of people who live alone in their 30s and 40s. Why is this important? Because the single-best determinant of longevity is number of friends beyond a spouse. When a woman’s husband dies, she spends more time with her friends. When a guy’s wife dies, he spends more time with himself. And that lack of connection is a literal killer in your 60s, 70s, and 80s.
  4. Physically, your 40s are when the weekly hurts go daily, when your hair thins to a point where you consider the comical comb-over your uncle employed (or maybe you just shave it all off). It’s when getting down becomes as hard as getting up. When your eyes go. It’s when skin cancer rates rise. Ditto for sexual dysfunction. You wouldn’t wish the 40s on your worst enemy.

Add it up, and your 40s are the worst thing to happen to you since … since … since, well never. Because it’s always been better.

Until, you know, your 50s. 😉

I Want to Be a Little Old Man

I want to be a little old man.
Concentrated, reduced,
Like a sauce my wife cooks up on the kitchen stove.
Many things go in, heat is applied,
and what is left is less
And more.

There was a time in life when I was many things—
Expansive and full of multitudes.
I’m less than that now.
Where once I wanted to be many things,
I find myself becoming something sharper,
Singular,
In some ways softer.
I find that I am whittling down to an essential me.

There are people called to grow
Through life, always bigger.
I have attained my maximum size, I think,
And I see me getting smaller,
More focused, denser in my proportion of me.

There is a loss in getting smaller,
In taking up less space,
But I imagine my electrons whirling closer to my center.
I feel the density of a singular purpose,
The mass that comes with knowing
What I am
And what I am not.

For years I chased a whiff of something big and gamey,
Always out of sight.
It’s only now that I understand that what I couldn’t see
Was not me, but something else—
Something hunted, elusive, other.
Because I will be a little old man.

And being smaller, I will be able to go places
I could not if bigger.

And being whittled down, being reduced, being less
Than I once was, or dreamed I was,
I will find a richness and a litheness
That I could not have imagined.

I want to die a little old man,
Reduced by life to my essential things:
Eyes, hands, ears, intentions,
And a sense that this little man,
Born in abundance, concentrated by experience,
Leavened by the love of others and that which springs from Deep Within,
That he is enough.