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Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente

MARGARET WENTE

Suddenly, I’m the oldest person in the room – and I love it Add to ...

I saw a younger woman striding off to work the other day. She looked to be in her early 40s. She wore a crisp, grey suit that clung to her well-toned form in a way that made her look no-nonsense, but alluring. She strode with energy and purpose. She’d probably been up at 5 to hit the gym. Now, she was off to do battle in some boardroom or courtroom, and conquer all before her.

I sighed. I was her, once. All right, not quite her. But I was her age, with rock-hard thighs, power suits and ambition to burn. For many years, I was the youngest person in the room, and often the only woman. It was good.

Today, the room is full of women, and I’m often the oldest person in it. Many of my colleagues have mothers my age. My boss has a book on her desk called Managing the Older Employee, which means me, I guess. I suspect it’s full of tips for how to motivate me and get me to use my cellphone. As she’ll learn when she herself becomes an older employee, the best way to motivate us is to leave us the hell alone. In fact, that’s mostly what she does.

According to some reports, baby boomers aren’t adjusting well to aging. Many of us seemed to believe that it would never happen – not to us! – and some of us are finding it exceedingly unpleasant. “When did we get so old?” writer Michelle Willens lamented in last Sunday’s New York Times. She interviewed members of the newly old who bemoaned their loss of youth, status, power and with-it-ness. “It’s a huge issue,” a psychiatrist told her. “I see so many who are trying to adjust their lives to this new phase, which for some reason none of us really pictured ourselves going through.”

There is a germ of truth to this. I used to look at older women and secretly believe that whatever was happening to them would never happen to me. Those horizontal lines women get around their necks? No way! That crepey thing that happens to their inner arms? Impossible!

Then, one day, I woke up and inadvertently caught a glimpse of my inner arms. They looked like they needed ironing. Now I know that everything other women get, I’ll probably get too.

But it’s not just us boomers who are in denial. I know all the younger women in the room are looking at my arms and saying to themselves, “No way that’s going happen to me!” And they, too, will find out they’re wrong.

The truth is that being the oldest person in the room isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be. And as for that grey-suited power woman, I don’t envy her for a minute. Instead, I feel an overwhelming surge of relief that I don’t have to live that life any more. I don’t have to get up at 5, hit the office at 8, work 12 hours a day, wear pantyhose and take my two weeks off a year with a cellphone glued to my hip. I don’t have to worry about my next promotion, where my career is going, how many people are smarter and more talented than I am or what I’ll do if my boss turns out to be an evil, soul-sucking maniac. That’s easy. I’ll quit.

My husband feels the same way. He used to have a business, a partner and a payroll to meet. He had an office and a fancy title. Now he has a cubicle and does work he really likes. His podmates are roughly half his age. They appreciate his craft and guile and his shrewd advice for navigating office politics.

“I have an unwritten clause in my contract,” he told me. “It’s the happiness clause. And if it gets violated, I’m out of there.”

He swears the only downside of aging is that young, nubile women no longer want to have sex with him and bear his children. Instead, they offer him their seat on the subway. He tries not to dwell on this.

In fact, one of the upsides of aging is that many marriages get happier. If you never bothered to split up, you’re probably glad you didn’t – and if you did, you might get back together. Things that used to drive you insane about your mate don’t bug you so much any more. Well, there are still some things. But so what if he looks more and more like his dad every year? You’ll get over it.

But the real surprise is that there is no adventure remotely like aging. You’re plunging into unknown waters, and for the first time in your life (providing you have your health and some means), you’re free to do exactly what you want. You can go tend bar in the Bahamas. You can read Moby-Dick, chase the resplendent quetzal through the cloud forest or spend more time with the people you really love. Or all of the above. You are truly, finally, the boss of you.

Not that this is easy. Actually, it’s both thrilling and terrifying. Until now, we’ve had a checklist of things we were supposed to do (go to school, graduate, leave home, job-hop, find vocation, settle down, mate, buy property, reproduce, put the kids through school). The checklist is done. We’re on our own. And we’d better get on with it, whatever it is, because time is getting short. Compared to this existential challenge, crepey arms are nothing.

There’s a dream I have these days. I go into the office and realize I don’t know anybody’s name, and nobody knows mine. Everyone is very kind, but slightly puzzled about who I am and why I’m there. I suppose my subconscious is trying to soften me up for the inevitable. Meanwhile, I sort of like being the oldest person in the room. God knows, there are worse fates.

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