I am a 52-year-old woman and, therefore, becoming accustomed to being invisible. And yet I feel anything but. In fact, it’s more like being a patch of contested ground.
On one side, a strikingly articulate army of well-organised activists march forward to reassure me that I do not have to fade into obscurity despite society’s best efforts to put a giant paper bag over my head; that I have my best years ahead of me, and that a host of sparkling platforms, websites and communities are there to bolster my identity as I enter middle age and beyond. Should I want to start my own business, wear sequins to the supermarket, learn Finnish or start sheep farming, age should be no barrier. Go me!
On the other comes the legion of the fresh-faced, pointing out – with indubitable stats and facts on their side – that I have begun my slide towards apparently inevitable selfishness, and will any minute now become a stalwart reactionary, siding with the haves over the have-nots, propping up the establishment and generally bequeathing disaster to those younger than me. After all, my cohort has voted for Brexit, got its feet firmly on the housing ladder and is now benefiting from an age-related vaccination programme. There’s a lot to conserve.
Both approaches have some legitimacy; and yet both give me a sinking feeling. Should I be insisting on my continued importance to the culture, or should I be yielding to those with less weathered skin in the game?
The midlife cheerleaders are right to focus on the cruelty visited on many older people, and women in particular, by the rigid assumptions and structures of patriarchy; to rail against the idea that, once past their usefulness as objects of sexual desire and reproduction, women are less valuable; and that their experiences and expertise in the wider world also operate according to a law of diminishing returns, their professional capital seeming to wane just as that of their male counterparts rises.
But there is something uncomfortably status-driven about many of these initiatives; a conception of a successful life as something that we carefully assemble – job, family, home – and must then protect from depreciation or predation. These constructions are class and wealth derived too, though; the visions of empowerment and liberation inherent in them frequently underpinned by a highly specific understanding of success. What it would look like if what we were seeking to preserve or extend was not our place in the bourgeois hierarchy, but an intellectual freedom, a more radical sensibility?
This is not to deny the ageism that enrages many of us to our core, the narrative of division that will sink us all. When I read, for example, that I am more likely to be hostile to the Duchess of Sussex – in the words of one commentator, more disposed to seeing her as “a ruthless operator” or a “deepfake Diana” – because of my age, I feel both erased and despairing, as though my capacity to understand the forces of misogyny and racism that have shaped her story are somehow beyond my grasp. They are not.
And when I see younger generations of thinkers, justifiably angry at the effect that political and economic decisions have had on their lives – sundering them from Europe, endangering their ability to create stable homes, making a bin-fire of the environment – rounding on the preceding generations, I feel deeply unsettled. I get it, but I fear for where such deadening and blanket ways of understanding different groups of people might lead.
The past year has exacerbated the matter: everyone feels hard done by and, indeed, everyone has been. My mother-in-law, the most sociable 86-year-old I know, stuck in her house and unable to go to her thrice-weekly card-playing sessions, shielded from illness but immured in endless repeats of The Chase; my 22-year-old godson, whose whereabouts should be unknown to me, at home with his mum, cheerily inquiring about my wellbeing on a Zoom call that must be utter boredom for him; my two-year-old great niece, doted on by all and sundry, cut off from her peer group of similarly curious and energetic toddlers.
I feel sorry for us all. Must I choose, on top of all this, between an image of myself as a vibrant but tragically overlooked midlifer and an embryonic lady gammon?
If only any of it felt like me, muddling through, trying to hop from one week to the next with as little distress and as much pleasure as possible. Feeling, as those of us of a certain age consistently point out, just as excited, volatile, imaginative and unfinished as we did in our youth. Sure, the scenery changes: where years ago the achievements were paying the rent and the payoff getting pissed in the pub, I now count a week where the rain doesn’t come in the roof and nobody has to go to A&E as a victory to be celebrated with a nice bit of Nigella and the Netflix documentary about Fran Lebowitz, but the principle is the same. Do your best, try not to hurt anyone and avoid falling into a big hole. That’s good enough, isn’t it?