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What was it like turning 40 in the 1970s and 50 in the 1980s?

How did one celebrate, if at all? And how did one cope with the ‘change of life’? Jill shares her perspective in this week’s (and the very first) Jam Jar.

Friends in the 1950s

In the 1950s and 60s it seemed to be men turning 30 who were given ‘over-the-hill’ parties. Many were more than willing to ‘trip the light fantastic’ for another decade or so. Friends seemed to be reminding them that the most eligible girls were becoming unavailable: they may have to resort to becoming sugar-daddies to the latest batch of attractive females leaving school. Now we’d call a 30-year-old male a boy.

My sister had her 40th birthday in the mid-1980s in a South Australian country town. Friends arrived at the party wearing black arm-bands and, surprising, sang ‘the old grey mare she ain’t what she yuster be’. That’s the sort of insult you could deal someone then and get away with it.

Not one of us had felt any enthusiasm before-hand for this obnoxious birthday.

My school friends turned 40 in the mid l970s. One fellow 80-year-old says she thought, at the time, it was the end for her. Not one of us had felt any enthusiasm before-hand for this obnoxious birthday. Our generation had memories of the horror that our mothers had felt. They had to put up with ‘fair, fit and forty’. Some meanies jeered “fair, fat and forty’. ‘Life begins at 40’ said some kind husbands.

Some of our mothers really felt beyond saving. They were forced to replace crumbling teeth with dentures. In this they were not alone. Most had been eating too many afternoon tea cakes.

The 1970s 40-year-old woman hoped that no-one would remember her birthday. She sometimes had no chance of avoiding the plans of younger siblings and friends delighting in their own comparative youthfulness. The gleefulness of these wretches forced her to celebrate the unmentionable, swallow her pride, leave the children with granny and join in with gusto.

She then managed to eat the beautiful food, drink divine wine and sing politically incorrect songs while dancing on the table; generally making a fool of herself.

When the new 40-year-olds sobered up they found life going on as normal. The stay-at-homes (many were) went on carting the children around and putting time into boring committees. There was always haus-frauing, gardening, tennis and reading (if inclined).

Life after 40 didn’t alter things much. We had had to leave work when we got hitched or pregnant. Some of us went back to nursing or teaching as the old rules relaxed. Others did courses in pottery, weaving, painting or printing hardly making a cent.

We knew some women who were brilliant cooks and who gave fabulous dinner parties, but most of them were in their 30s. We loved their dinner parties. Sometimes 40-year-olds gave anguish-making dinner parties that seemed to take all the night before and that day to execute. One would serve the meat course with panache only for fussy guests to discover raw meat under the pastry (my cooking) or the puddings had become stuck to the bottom of the Ramekins (don’t ask).

Well, then it happened too quickly. We the young things of the ’50s became 50-year-olds. This was the new age for ‘over-the-hillness’. I think 80 is nearer the mark now, or the 90s and beyond.

Well, then it happened too quickly. We the young things of the 50’s became 50-year-olds. This was the new age for ‘over-the-hillness’. I think 80 is nearer the mark now, or the 90s and beyond.

Something good and bad happened then…. the menopause. When people’s mothers were 50ish they would blather on about the ‘change-of-life’ and would lie around having the vapours. We didn’t want anything to do with such pathetic attitudes. We just shut up about these appalling vicissitudinous woes. True the upside was that there was no more worrying about ‘Agatha’ or ‘The Curse’ ruining things. That really gave more freedom like being able to swim at any time or doing gymnastics.

However, a spare tyre appeared around the middle. White and grey hairs were expensive to disguise. After years of soaking up the sun in the 50s, 60s and 70s our skin was disintegrating before our very eyes. We couldn’t quite see ourselves in ripped, stone-washed jeans, see-through gauzy gowns and thigh-high towering boots (mutton dressed as lamb?)

Some popular previously bright young things noticed men not noticing them. At all.

All this was a shock. Some popular previously bright young things noticed men not noticing them. At all. Even when they did old tricks like swinging from handy chandeliers. Some nice men (older ones) did but it was living dangerously (for the 50-year-old woman that is). On the whole men didn’t seem to mind being 50. They were in their prime (they thought) and made funny speeches at their own 50th birthday parties.

The answer to fighting the sorrow at ageing is to stick to your age group and don’t listen to the wets who tell you to grow older gracefully, that’s far too well-meaning. Being disgraceful is the way to go if you don’t mind being troublesome.

JJJ