WE’RE WOMEN OF ‘A CERTAIN AGE’… HEAR US ROAR!
As a baby boomer myself I have taken the liberty of bundling everyone between the ages of 45 and 65 into a common basket that I have quite arbitrarily called “a certain age”. Not that there is anything wrong with being of a certain age; I’m there myself and have been for some time.
I believe that in less enlightened times this stage in the life cycle was known as “middle age”. But we baby boomers dispensed with the term “middle age” not long after many approached middle age at the turn of the century. Instead we boomers have preferred to delude ourselves with concepts such as “50 is the new 40″.
I’m sorry to acquaint you with the facts but 50 is not the new 40. Fifty is 50. Always was always will be. Deal with it.
Although the fact that such a concept plays so well to today’s generation of 50-somethings is instructive. I am convinced that baby boomers see themselves at 50 as being fundamentally different to previous generations at 50. In fact I’d go so far as to say that boomers make mental comparisons between themselves and their parents at the same age. This is one of the reasons why boomers love poring over family photographs albums: how old was mum in that photo? Fifty? Really? And all the while we compare how we look at the same age given the same genes.
That’s why newspaper editors insist on stating the age of people photographed for random vox pops: we’re not in the least bit interested in these people’s views on politics, climate change or Paris Hilton. What we’re interested in is in seeing whether we think we look younger than this person who is cited as being aged 56. And if we happen to be a few years younger, say, 54, we go so far as to recalibrate our self-image with the photo. ”My God, is that what I might look like in two years?” ”But then I look after myself.” Or, “I must have better genes”. Or, “I bet she’s had work done?” ”Perhaps I should have some work done?” And all of this takes places within the blink of an eye as we turn the page.
In 1968, at the age of 28, John Lennon said don’t trust anyone over 30. John Lennon thought you were middle aged at 31 forty years ago.
The average age at first marriage for an Australian woman in 1971 was 21; she was a baby boomer born in 1950. She would have announced her engagement on her 21st birthday and most likely to a boyfriend she had been “going with” since secondary school. They probably danced together at her debut at 17. (The debut was a coming out ritual; it has been replaced by the school formal.) And the reason why baby boomer women were in such a hurry to pair up was because if they didn’t they thought they might be left “on the shelf”. My, haven’t we changed.
I have no doubt that if a Generation Y woman today announced her engagement on her 21st birthday she would be regarded as a “loser”. She would be scolded by her peers and possibly also by her boomer parents. She should have completed tertiary education, travelled overseas, paid off HECS, trialled—even road-tested—a series of relationships before making a permanent commitment just on the right side of 30. Maybe this is why the average age at first confinement (or pregnancy) has shifted from 23 in the early 1970s to 31 today. These social shifts have changed the narrative of how the 20-something decade is lived in the 2000s and 2010s. But why should Generation Y have all the decade-changing fun?
Boomers – and boomer women in particular – are right now in the process of re-engineering the 50- and 60-something time in the life cycle.
Retiring and slowing down in these years made sense when life expectancy conked out in the early 70s. You were approaching death after all. There was good reason to look, think, dress and act old.
But the average 60-year old woman today can reasonably expect to live another 30 years. Sixty, let alone 50, is way too early to start “being old”. So, what does this generation of middle-aged (there, I’ve said it) boomer women do as they sail past 50 and on towards 60? They invent new life forms that’s what they do. The cougar is a perfect example. Previous generations of women locked into loveless unions simply put up with it. ”Till death do us part”, and all that jazz. But not boomer women. For the first time women in this age group have skills if not tertiary education as well as real connectivity into the workplace. They are very confident about who they are and what they want.
Although I must say I am perturbed by the term cougar: it is suggestive of something that is predatory and that has claws. Why not SWIFs: Single Women in their Fifties?
Whatever we are calling them they are on the up and up: between 1986 and 2006 the proportion of women aged 40-54 who were single increased from 19 per cent to 27 per cent. What we might once have called middle aged single women are clearly a growing demographic and cultural force. These women buy apartments, clothes, entertainment and live busy lives. I liken this group to anew life-form in much the same vein as the inner-city living Generation-Y single that popped up in the 2000s.
I think that boomer women entering and now redefining how life is lived in the 50s and 60s will be one the most powerful social and consumer forces of the 2010s. These women have spending power, critical mass—2.3 million or ten per cent of the nation—and most important the self confidence to forge new pathways to personal fulfillment that their mothers wouldn’t have dreamt of when they were the same age in the late 1970s.
Bernard Salt is the author The Big Tilt: What happens when the boomers bust and Xers and Ys inherit the earth; twitter.com/bernardsalt; facebook.com/BernardSaltDemographer; email@example.com
So, The Hoopla wants to know:
How does you life differ from your mother’s? What was she doing when she was your age?