Forty-six-year-old Satshya Menon, a homemaker in Abu Dhabi, brought in her birthday this year with much fanfare, as she always does. Unlike others her age, she joined her teenaged children in buying extravagant cakes and decorating the house with balloons. “It makes the kids happy too, so why not?”
She doesn’t understand the gloom that engulfs people after turning 40, or why they dislike celebrating their birthday. “My friends asked me too, why I am so excited about my birthday in my forties. They think that there’s nothing much to be thankful for, once when you grow older,” she says.
What upsets them about crossing 40? “Pains, aches, grey hair and the fear of forgetting things quickly,” chuckles Menon. “They think that their best years are behind them, and keep telling me to act my age,” she says with a sigh.
Menon doesn’t agree with this line of thought; she believes that she has found more happiness and freedom after turning 40, as compared to her 20s and 30s. “Those early years were spent running pillar to post, trying to make a life for myself, looking after my children, while trying to excel in my career. It was tough, but they were filled with a lot of learning experiences. If I hadn’t gone through so much then, I wouldn’t be in a position to relax much now. I would still be the same over-sensitive and thin-skinned person that I was then, unable to rise to any occasion. So I see a lot of changes in myself during the middle-age change, and I am glad for it.”
So the 40s don’t need to be just thought of in terms of possible cognitive decline or aches and pains. Clearly, there’s a lot more to look forward too. As experts explain, you might be surprised to find yourself armed with newfound skills and abilities to tackle life. It’s all about the mindset.
‘The pay-off happens in your 40s’
The best years might just be ahead of you.
Audrey Hametner, a Dubai-based professor, wellness expert who also specialises in career and confidence training for youth, believes, life can begin after 40, too. Explaining the trials and tribulations of the various decades she says, “In our 20s, we struggle to gain insightful knowledge to get us in the door of our industry and workplaces. We spend our 30s honing our success skills, becoming better at what we do, and who we are managing and finding a balance from the last decades’ focus mainly on work. For those who had their head down in their 20s and 30s, they are about advancement, and being acknowledged for the work that they have done to progress, or just balancing life.”
In our 20s, we struggle to gain insightful knowledge to get us in the door of our industry and workplaces. We spend our 30s honing our success skills, becoming better at what we do, and who we are managing and finding a balance from the last decades’ focus mainly on work...
However it’s in our 40s, that the pay-off actually happens, she says. There is a stronger sense of resilience and fulfilment, as most people would have traversed through the highest of highs and lowest of lows by this time. This would help them in developing a thick skin and more resilience to adversity.
“In our 40s, we have seen a lot, survived a lot, and have a better vision of what makes us feel fulfilled in our work. We usually decide to ascend or take another path during this time,” explains Hametner. For those who have families, their children gain more independence and parents can use this time to refocus, and enjoy this new-found time. People use this free time to explore more professional development opportunities, she adds. According to a 2021 survey by the American Aspen institute, the average age of executives taking executive educational courses was 39.
Self-esteem and resilience
Petty politics at the workplace that once might have left you crying in the office washroom has no room in your life now. Lily Colman (name changed on request), a Dubai-based British public relations professional in her late 40s, laughs, as she says that the phrase ‘I am too old for this’ can actually get a positive spin. “What might have stressed me out in the early years, like quarrelling colleagues and hurtful managers, doesn’t affect me now. My sense of self-esteem has grown and doesn’t allow me to get so easily steamrolled, like it did earlier. I can actually hit back, without being aggressive and put people in their place. I used to cry so much earlier,” she says.
There’s a pervasive sense of emotional stability that most people acquire in their 40s, explains Kirin Hilliar, an associate professor in psychology at Heriot-Watt University, Dubai. “The moods are far more regulated, and many people develop the ability to take things in their stride. There is more control over the amygdala, which is a part of the brain that controls emotional and behavioural responses. So, what affected people earlier, doesn’t affect them now,” she adds. She explains with an example that office politics that stress out the younger generation and makes them panic, doesn’t seem to affect the older staff. “They wouldn’t mind so much,” she says.
Hilliar, also explains the concept of ‘positivity bias’, where she cites research that many people in their 40s have the ability to interpret situations with a more positive spin, instead of succumbing to worry. There’s more of a drive towards resolving conflicts, as many have the tendency to possess more maturity to do so, as compared to a teenager.
Handling the pressure of networking better
In our early years, there’s a rush to network and maintain our friendships in large circles. That itself, is an added pressure, explains Hilliar. However, this pressure somewhat reduces for most people in their 40s.
“I think they have a greater sense of self-awareness. They are less concerned about peer rejection and what people think of them,” she says. Hilliar,believes that people prioritise quality over quantity as they grow older, and this is reflected in their social networks. “While the groups get smaller, there is more qualitative friendships in the group, rather than in the large groups,” she says.
People have a greater sense of self-awareness. They are less concerned about peer rejection and what people think of them. There’s a sense of re-evaluation, and they re-prioritise on how they want to spend their time....
On the other hand, after two decades of the ‘hustle’, people now have a better idea of how to navigate the stress of professional networking. “The biggest change for those in mid-life is the ability to build, develop and appreciate our networks. Networking has been proven to be a great way to gain industry insights, broaden our knowledge and survive at the top,” says Hametner. According to a 2020 study by the US-based National Bureau of Economic Research, people who network are more likely to be employed and have higher earnings. “It is widely documented that when we engage with our peers in meaningful interactions, we build social and emotional connections that increase wellbeing and decrease issues like loneliness. It is a stark difference to the heads-down go, go, go approach many of us took in our 20s and 30s,” she explains.
Revaluation and prioritising your time wisely
Fifty-two-year-old Susan James, a Dubai-based teacher feels that she is far more capable at managing her time now, as compared to when she was in her 30s. “I always felt there were so many things to do. The schedules always seemed so packed, running to office, running to pick up the children from school... in short, just running everywhere. I had so many hobbies like writing and reading, but I could never get around to do any of it, because I was so busy with cramming everything into a schedule. But I think gradually over the years, I learnt how to make time for myself, and enforce stricter boundaries between work and home. I think there’s a realisation as you grow older, that you need to make time for yourself, instead of always feeling like you’re on some hamster wheel,” she says. James proudly says that she has finally managed to finish the first manuscript of her book, as well as read several books a month.
Adding to this, Hilliar, says that as people grow into their middle age, they are more cautious about what they wish to do with their time. “There’s a sense of re-evaluation, and they re-prioritise on how they want to spend their time.” There’s also more freedom to do so, as their children are possibly far more independent.
Hilliar, explains that people now have the ability to shift their jobs or even career line by 40s, as compared to earlier generations, when they stuck to one job for their whole life. People now have the opportunity to make such changes and see what else they can do with their life, if they wish to turn it around.
Empathy and humility
Ironically, research shows that many people above the age of 40 are far more empathetic, as compared to when they were younger. Those, who have particularly seen a lot of trials and tribulations in their life, do develop a far softer side as they grow into their 40s. Empathy is always a key skill that one needs throughout life, it nourishes all kinds of relationships, both professional and personal.
Hametner summarises, “I think, our life from 40 onwards is the best time to refocus our lives, as it is based on the experiences of the past two decades. We are clearer, sharper, stronger and more resilient to life and its challenges. We have deeper relationships and some of us are a little wiser about acknowledging and setting important boundaries that keep us safe, both physically and mentally,” she says.
So, embrace the 40s and all the years that follow.