On Turning 40

Have the Baby Boomers ruined aging for the rest of us?

About a month ago, I turned 40. It’s often thought of as a landmark age, like those milestone ages throughout your teen years or when you turn 21 and you can finally drink legally. It’s also usually defined by one simple, irrefutable fact: you’re getting older. My 12 year-old son is only too quick to point this out. And, in my opinion, he should.

Now, for many people, simply admitting this is worse than actually speaking Lord Voldemort’s name. If you don’t believe me, take a look at pop culture all around you. Everything it seems is geared towards our sense of vanity. “Use this cream and you’ll look ten years younger.” “Take this pill and you can perform like a man half your age.” There’s just something about us that makes us yearn for yesteryear. As Don Draper put it, it’s “a place where we ache to go again.”

But should we? Thomas Wolfe famously wrote “You Can’t Go Back Home Again.” Due to the effects of time and distance, the world has a way of changing on you, even while it feels quite familiar. As Carl Wilson wrote last year in a New York Times op-ed (h/t Jennifer James):

Long before we had much life to look back on, North Americans my age knew that nostalgia was a sickness. It’s not that we were aware the term was coined to describe the crippling melancholia that overcame many 17th-century Swiss soldiers when war took them away from the bucolic mountain landscapes of home. It was that, being in our teens and 20s in the early 1990s, we had grown up in the penumbra of the great eclipsing nostalgia of the baby boomers, with their 1950s “Happy Days”; their 1960s (the Greatest Decade Ever Told); and their serial losses of innocence, via the Kennedys’ assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, etc.—a record of revirginization to rival any evangelical chastity-pledge campaign.

But is that explanation too simple? A reaction to the poetic waxing of Baby Boomers about how they changed the world back in their day? I suppose that may explain part of it. After all, Boomers not only make up a very large cohort, they came of age in the television era and learned how to master the medium to transmit that nostalgic yearning across the planet.

But to say all Boomers act like this is too easy. My dad is a Boomer born in ’46 and he has no such use for nostalgia. As he told me when I was in high school rediscovering his old collection of albums “I lived through all that shit once before. Why do I need to go back and revisit it?” After I moved from DC/MD in ’99, one of his favorite artists was Staind. I knew a fair number of Boomers back then. But I didn’t know too many who would listen to Staind. Or Stone Temple Pilots.

So, to see the explosion of ’80s and ’90s revivalism is, to me, frankly a bit revolting. Because at its essence, it’s the sort of thing that I would think Gen Xers would see as merely repeating the nostalgic mistakes of the past. Taken to an extreme it’s downright delusional. I’m sure many of my fellow Xers have stories of Boomer-aged family members that couldn’t stop living the dream. For them, it’s always 196X, Ed Sullivan is still on the TV and JFK might even still be President.

As for those of us turning 40, we already lived through those neon colored clothes. And Wayfarer glasses. I couldn’t stand a lot of that stuff then. And guess what? I still can’t stand them when I see them now. Maybe I’m turning into a curmudgeon in my old age.

Or maybe not. Because, there’s a very real danger that comes with living in a nostalgic fog: a lack of relevance. Ultimately, that’s the fight we’re all fighting against yet we never acknowledge it. Nobody wants to be told they need to be put out to pasture. We all want—and even need—to feel like we can do something meaningful and necessary. Maybe once you turn 40, you start asking yourself that question more: Can you still have an impact on this world? As a dad, I can say “Absolutely.”

But for many, that may not be enough. I know it isn’t for me. Which makes being alive in this day and age so great. Because you can learn stuff online. For free. Try doing that while your President was proclaiming how proud he was of being a Berliner. Or while you were watching some movie with Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson in it.

And it’s not just learning stuff via online courses. We have apps for your phone that help you monitor your health. Apps that let you take books with you practically anywhere in the world. There are more ways to communicate with more people in more ways now than at any time in history. And you can do it from practically anywhere, provided you’re willing to take the time to learn how. There’s that relevance thing again. It’s easier to do almost anything from anywhere now. But only if you’re willing to try it and engage with it.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go read up on programming in Go whilst listening to Morning Parade.


This was previously published on A Daily Pinch.

Read more in Lifestyle on The Good Life.

Image credit: Ben Sutherland/Flickr

About Professor Pinch

Professor Pinch is a man of mystery. No, not really. He just wants to enjoy a good beer, a good cigar, a decent meal with his family, a video game that won't give him carpal tunnel ("No, the move sequence is X, X, Y, B, A, R1, R2, L1 then press down on both joysticks").

A regular contributor at Minyanville.com, he writes about macroeconomics and investing. Which is good, because he has a degree in economics from the University of Maryland. Just don't mention the name Christian Laettner in his presence.

He lives in Charlotte, NC with his wife and son.


  1. I’m a late boomer. A few years ago, I was in my late 40’s, and got a new coworker, who had just turned 20. He was a very angry young man, at least where I was concerned. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I’d done to rub him the wrong way. I live in a college town, so many of my coworkers and customers are in their early twenties. I’ve been told that I’m pretty cool for a old guy (although the line between “distingushed older gentleman” and “cranky old fart” is a thin one, and getting thinner every year).

    The rude comments and snide remarks went on until I could stand it no longer, and I confronted him. I’m a pretty big guy, and can be intimidating when necessary. It’s a power I use sparingly, and for good, rather than evil. But I wanted answers, dammit. He obliged.

    He went off on a rant you wouldn’t believe. It was at times meandering and contradictory, but there was one theme. Baby boomers were responsible for all the worlds’ ills. In some respects, he was right. I did the same thing at his age. However, the differences between me, and my parents generation were much wider than those of his generation and mine. (Now, it’s OK for old people to be cool.)

    I explained that the problems he was citing existed long before either one of us. “You don’t like the world”, I said, “Change it. But blaming everyone my age is somewhat less than productive.” Did we make mistakes? Of course. It’s what humans do. Anyone who gets through life without regret, hasn’t actually lived.

    I don’t know if I was able to get through. He was, however, much more polite after that.

  2. As an early Gen X’er (born in 1966) I grew up surrounded by Baby Boomers longing for the ’60’s and what it was to be young in the ’60’s (the music, the drugs, the politics, the protests, all the countercultual ferment). It’s funny to me because I feel no nostalgia for the ’80’s or ’90’s. Sure, I liked some of the music and sonetimes I turn on the ’80’s station on my satellite radio. But honestly I can barely remember what it was “like” to be a young person in that era. If I think anout it, I’m like, yeah, I guess we had the PC computer revolution and stuff, and that was kinda cool, but I don’t need to relive it.

    I was happy to turn 40 because I could finally stop worrying about turning 40. It was a relief.

  3. 40+ is PRIME OF YOUR LIFE. Wasn’t your 20’s or 30’s. Surprise! Now, go enjoy. The best is yet to come.

  4. wellokaythen says:

    A lot of men in their 40’s, like myself, actually went through an existential crisis about aging in the years before reaching 40, not on our 40th birthday. The most common time people panic about reaching 40 is when they’re 37 or 38. I hardly noticed turning 40, because I got all that angst out of the way two years earlier. By the time I turned 40, I was so tired of feeling depressed about the things I had left to do in life that I couldn’t give that any more energy. By the time I turned 40, I had already been done worrying about turning 40 for about a year and a half.

    (Even more remarkably, I was a late bloomer, and I’m naturally a procrastinator. Doing anything earlier than I have to is an extraordinary thing for me.)

    I’m not saying that’s a good way to deal with aging. I’m just saying that when people flip out over turning 40, it’s not necessarily at the moment they turn 40.

    If you’re in your early thirties, watch out for a “turning 40 crisis” at 37/38. It’s closer than you think. (I get to cackle about things like that because I’m an old man.)

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