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Life Honestly

Is 36 the new “scary age”? 

Do you have an age you expect everything to be "done" by? Caroline O'Donoghue on 36 and the concept of the "scary age"

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

In an old and not particularly enlightened episode of Sex and The City, Miranda introduces the concept of a scary age. 

“What if I wake up at 43 and find that my one semi-decent ovary gave up - and I can't have kids?” she asks Carrie. 

“43?” responds Carrie. 

“That's my scary age.”

Her friend nods. “Mine’s 45.” 

Scary ages are, of course, ridiculous. Everyone, I think, had that weird phase as a teenager when they mapped out their entire life in front of them, plotting events with a cock-eyed certainty. You decide you’ll get married when you're 25, and you’ll have your first baby at 26, so they’ll be in school when you're 30, and then you can go back to work, and… and, and, and. Plans that are both grand and naive, as limited in their likelihood as they are in their originality. And as you get older, you realise how silly those plans were in the first place. You watch 25 and 26 pass by, bemused that you ever thought those were appropriate ages for you – you, the person who can’t find the next door on your Advent Calendar so you just tear into whatever door your hand lands on – to get married and start a family. But while you dismiss your childish goals, I don’t think the idea of a scary age – a “this is the age I will be when everything in my life has sorted itself out and if I haven’t done it by then, well, I’m truly fucked” – ever truly leaves you. 

There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that 36 is the scary age. An Irish study has found that, for women in particular, 36 is when “women are doing everything for the family and for their work but they are not looking after themselves properly, which results in anxiety, depression and stress.” 

My sister, an Irish woman who is 36, falls right into this category. She has two children under five, and is currently trying to figure out how she’s going to return to work once her maternity leave is over. 

"I can't afford to work, and I can't afford to not work,” she says, and I can already tell that I’ve called at a bad time. Her nose is blocked up with cold and her four-month-old whines softly on her arm. “I can't afford to not-work because I have a massive mortgage. I can't afford to move because I'm in negative equity. I could afford one child in childcare, I now can't afford two. So where do you go? You can't exactly attack the career ladder and stay at your desk until 8pm, with two small kids. So what do you do?" 

As a 26-year-old you’re expected to change and evolve, but at 36, people view you as more or less cooked

But while childcare and money worries make up a huge chunk of why 36 seems to matter so much, it’s not the whole answer. This Is Us, a new drama that has quickly become a hit, provides a good example: the pilot episode opens on a group of characters, all turning 36 on the same day. While some characters are struggling with family woes, others are forced to confront looser, more ill-defined anxieties. Like the idea of having your life “sorted out”, as if it’s a thing that just happens one day: a final puzzle piece that slots into place, and thereinafter your life is a static, joyous, dreamy balance of work and play. You’re no longer in your early thirties, and as such, society has more or less figured you out. As a 26-year-old you’re expected to change and evolve, but at 36, people view you as more or less cooked. If you’re single now, you’ll probably keep on being single. If you work in banking, you'll probably keep on working in banking. If you’re financially successful, you’ll probably keep on being financially successful. And even when I talk to my sister – my sister, with her two beautiful children and lovely husband, who adores motherhood and knows how lucky she is – I detect a note of resignation. Like how her life is now is exactly how her life will be forever. 

And that, I think, is the scary thing about being 36: the idea that all the big adventures and all the big life changes are over, and now you just sort of wait for things to unfold from there. Now you just have to compete within the arena you have built for yourself: whether that's getting "director" in your job title or getting in with the cool mums at the school gates.

Except… an idea is just that. It’s an idea. It’s not actually the truth, at all. The world is full to bursting with stories about how people changed their lives radically in their 40s, 50s, 60s and so on. Julia Child, for example, hadn’t eaten French food until she was – wait for it – 36 years old. She didn’t achieve success as a cook until she was 51. But I don’t even have to look at great Meryl Streep characters for reassurances that your life can change radically at any age. My mother, who married at 20 and gave birth to my sister at 21, got her first job at 52 when she opened her own mock-Victorian sweet shop. Five years later, and I get regular phone calls from her dispensing hard-nosed career advice and stories about how her suppliers are spamming her with fudge. 

We cling on to the idea of doing certain things by ages – whether that age is 36, 45, or 60 – because humans are natural lovers of admin, and having a marker in time feels better than having none at all. But that’s all they are: markers. And the best thing about them is that they’re moveable. 


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