Robert Fulford's column about middle age

(The National Post, April 11, 2000)

For a long time, "middle-aged" has been one of those terms that demonstrate the supreme flexibility of the English language: It bends to suit the needs of those who use it. It's infinitely malleable, like "spiritual." You can hammer it into any shape without quite losing its meaning -- and it always carries a heavy charge of emotion, sometimes hidden. Orson Welles, when he realized he was old, remarked that most good work is done by artists in either youth or old age; the middle-aged tend to produce mediocrity, he said. He was, of course, yearning to revive his own thwarted career, which is the sort of feeling often aroused by discussions of age.

There are young people who dread middle age. You sometimes hear them use the term as an expletive, particularly in the arts: Middle-aged audiences are tired and unresponsive, middle-aged ideas deplorable. Much later, many of the same people will be seen clinging to middle age, apparently hoping it will go on forever. They figure it must be better than what follows.

Clouds of vagueness swirl around the subject of age. The more sensitive we feel about it, the fuzzier our terminology. Today everyone uses the term "middle age," but few define it. I was grateful when Dr. Jean Marmoreo wrote in these pages recently that, so far as she's concerned, you are middle-aged from 40 to 64. This has the virtue of being explicit, though it ignores the meaning of "middle." That word "applies to the part more or less the same distance from each end," as the Gage Dictionary defines it, which suggests Dr. Marmoreo's 64-year-old will live to 128. On the other hand, Merriam-Webster gives a gently expansive definition of middle age: "the period of life from about 40 to about 60." A few years ago, an American study of 1,200 adults revealed that 55-year-olds usually consider themselves middle-aged -- and so do about a third of those older than 70. The researchers concluded that middle age was extending upward.

If the end-date changes, the beginning has remained relatively firm for four centuries. In 1611, Thomas Coryate wrote in his eccentric travel book, Crudities, about someone who "was a middle-aged man, as about 40 yeares old." And 387 years later, a Time magazine writer called himself "a newly minted middle-aged person" because he was hitting 40. But even this may be changing.

Something unpleasant is now happening to people around 40 -- people who still consider themselves youngish. The bizarre case of 39-year-old Kimberly Glasco (who sued the National Ballet for the right to dance under an artistic director who doesn't want her) is partly grounded in age.

She belongs to the class of performers (dancers, models, athletes, etc.) who grow professionally old much sooner than most of humanity. That was a relatively small group, but changing technology is expanding it. There is now a widespread belief that new computer systems can best be handled (and developed) by the really young. A year ago, a Fortune magazine article brought ugly news: "In corporate America, 40 is starting to look and feel old."

Much more than in the past, this is now a legal issue. Lawyers, judges and executives must ponder the meaning of whatever is said about age. A quarter of a century ago, when age discrimination became a public issue and then a legal question, legislators and courts were concerned with people in their 50s and 60s; mandatory retirement at 65 was a big issue. But in recent times employees have been claiming that companies sometimes fire 40-year-olds for not being 30-year-olds. In the U.S. federal courts, more than a quarter of age-discrimination plaintiffs are in their 40s. A 42-year-old saleswoman, discharged by an Arizona medical supplies company, claimed she was fired for being old. Not long before the firing, when she was getting an award for good sales, her boss unwisely remarked, "It's nice to see that someone over 40 can do something." That became part of her evidence. The jury gave her $1.1-million (US) plus costs.

In a case reported recently in Trial, the magazine of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, a court upheld a 53-year-old television sports reporter's claim of age discrimination when he reported that co-workers called him an "old fart" and an "old man" and said he was "too old to be on the air." Wise employers now avoid the subject of age entirely. An American appeals judge, Richard Posner, has noted that fear of litigation has purged the language spoken within corporations. Even a once-innocent statement like "We need new blood around here" may come back to haunt an employer in court. Of course you can never say, "You have far too much experience, which I believe has, over the years, made you rigid."

My own approach to the middle-aged question is entirely dispassionate, but that wasn't always the case. In 1967 Cynthia Scott called from CBC television to ask that I take part in a panel on middle-aged men. I said I couldn't see what I, a boy of 35, would know about middle age. Cynthia, it turned out, was pushing the envelope, though that term was not current at the time. She had decided that anyone halfway to three score years and 10 was middle-aged. Her brisk analysis produced, on my end of the phone, a long, thoughtful pause. I can't remember what we said on the program, but I never forgot the part about 35. It would be excessive to claim it ended my youth, but phrases like "tired, middle-aged thinking" disappeared forever from my vocabulary.

Finally, the long night of middle age ended for me, and I entered the valley of the shadow of euphemism. The language of evasion now surrounds me: senior citizen, elderly, golden age, etc. Whenever possible, I deny membership in any such group. I am loudly, proudly, old. This boast, of course, is based on a single accomplishment. Like billions before me, I discovered the only cure for middle age is to outlive it.

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