It has recently come to my attention that I am no longer young. No one is more shocked by this information than me, as I have the energy, vibrance, unfunny ironic t-shirts, and credit score of a woman half my age. But it’s true. The changes are subtle, yet noticeable. My knees are no longer reliable on very long walks. My face appears to be slowly sliding off the front of my head, as if it were a poorly assembled layer cake. The last album I purchased on the day it was released was Hail to the Thief. I am 38, and I am now on the young side of old.
If you are also in your late 30s or early 40s, you may be struggling with some of the same questions I’ve encountered: how can I be getting old, when I am obviously so young, and so vital, and also Radiohead are a really relevant band who only have their best work ahead of them? Didn’t I come of age during the era of the “quarter life crisis,” which occurred at age 25—meaning that I can’t be middle-aged until I’m 50, and also that I’ll die at age 100, possibly while wearing a robotic exoskeleton on the surface of the moon?
I blame this confusion on our childhoods.
As Gen X/ millennial cuspers, we achieved consciousness in a world filled with art about middle age. Our earliest memories line up with the Baby Boomers’s period of navel-gazing, befuddlement, and fascination with the fact that they had somehow aged. I’m talking The Big Chill (1983), Billy Joel’s “Keeping the Faith” (1983), thirtysomething (1987–1991), and Don Henley’s “End of the Innocence,” which was released in 1989, when the H-man was a tender 42 years old. These works of art examined the experiences of aging Boomers—the first generation to consider being young and cool part of their identity—making peace with the fact that they were now older and uncool. In these works, they raged, reflected, and eventually found solace in being the final generation to get to die a natural death, instead of being murdered in the Water Wars.
I believe that, having grown up in this era of middle-aged angst, we imagine the middle aged life phase belongs to some abstracted parental figure—not us, the little kid who wanted to watch something cool with explosions in it instead of thirtysomething. Adulthood—especially advancing adulthood, with all its attendant pleasures and confusions—simply feels like it belongs to someone else.
In my own life, I tied it to the hair. If you’ve ever seen the Big Chill or thirtysomething, you know that every hair stylist involved should be shot directly into the heart of the sun. Every woman has a spiral perm, or a Jonathan Taylor Thomas-style “butt” haircut, or has regular hair but is then inexplicably wearing an American Girl Doll-esque barrette that would look terrible on a 10-year-old but, on a 36-year-old, is a war crime.
Taking all that in at a tender age, I thought that was the essence of aging: avoid the Dep hair gel and Chico’s, stay young forever.
Of course, in recent years, I’ve learned the alarming truth: that spiral perms were once considered extremely cute, that middle-age happens whether or not you buy a blazer or make a ponderous film about it, and—most chillingly— that hip young people now shop at Chico’s, presumably to buy square-toed navy blue loafers that they then wear to hip Gen Z sex parties.
Are you as confused about whether you’re middle-aged as I once was? If you have a child who is old enough to call you an asshole, you have probably already accepted the reality of your own aging. But if you’re childless or have very young kids, you are likely still at least periodically vulnerable to illusions about your own youthfulness.
Have you ever thought something like, “I can’t be old. I’ve tried cocaine!/ own high-waisted jeans!/ have been to Bonnaroo!/ am the lead singer of the Arcade Fire!”?
That’s why I’ve produced this helpful quiz! Read on to find out if you’re still with it, or if you’re a middle-aged piece of garbage who needs to accept that your glory days ended in 2008 and take up a dignified hobby like whittling.
1. Do you say things like “Good for Olivia Wilde for hooking up with Harry Styles,” but also, your primary celebrity sex fantasy is about picking up Michael Shannon in an airport bar and then, two hours later, having animalistic sex at a Holiday Inn Express?
2. Do all your sex fantasies now involve airport bars and Holiday Inn Expresses, because you’ve been partnered for so long, your fantasies need to include a whole explanatory section about why you have all this free alone time (i.e. you’re at a professional convention in Cleveland, while your partner stayed home to attend a bat mitzvah)?
3. Do you think the ’90s were five years ago?
4. If a random stranger were to walk up to you and say, “What’s cooler than being cool?” would you not only instantly know how to reply, but feel that reply on such a deep, subconscious, nearly-feral level, that it would feel as if the answer has always been inside you, the way a mother feels her baby’s cry almost before it leaves their mouth?
5. If that stranger then said, “Did you know that song was released 18 years ago?”, would you want to hit that person?
6. Have you ever thought something like, “I can’t be old. I’ve tried cocaine!/ own high-waisted jeans!/ have been to Bonnaroo!/ am the lead singer of the Arcade Fire!”?
7. Does seeing a teenager ironically wearing a “vintage” Amy Winehouse t-shirt feel like an attack?
8. Have you ever said something at work like, “Come on, who hasn’t seen Wayne’s World?” only to discover that the answer is “everyone who is younger than you,” because Wayne’s World is not a timeless classic on par with Casablanca, but simply a pretty funny movie from 1992 that they used to show on cable a lot? (this same line of reasoning can also apply to Sonic Youth, Blossom, or Crispin Glover)
9. Do you think the ’90s were five years ago?
10. Who is this? And what does she have on her ears?
11. When you see a teenager wearing one of those really ugly slip dresses we had towards the end of the ‘90s — you know the ones, the really long shiny ones that hit mid-shin, and have that weird fold in the front that makes it look like your boobs could stand to be ironed? Anyway, when you see a teenager in one of those, do you feel an overwhelming rush of empathy for your own parents, who once looked at the Delia’s faux-70s disco button-up nylon shirts you wore in the late ’90s, and told you, “Those clothes were ugly the first time around, stop dressing like a jackass?”
11. When you heard that Juicy Couture was making a comeback, did you feel like your soul was separating from your body and entering a reality parallel to our own, one with its own rules about time and space, a la one of William Hurt’s trips in Altered States?
12. Did you know what Altered States was without having to look it up?
13. Are all your examples of trendy clothing from Forever 21 or Fashion Nova, but the honest truth is, a cool 19-year-old shops at a store you’ve never heard of and even if you did, if you tried to set foot inside, you’d be chased out like an opossum who wandered into an all-night supermarket?
14. Have you ever called it “Ecstasy”?
15. Do you even know what they call it now? Don’t say MDMA, that was, like, 10 years ago!!
16. When Luke Perry died, did you talk to your therapist about it?
17. Do you ever think things like, “My specific generation never had a chance — we were encouraged to bury ourselves in debt, then told to accept a world where well-paying work is scarce, health insurance costs $100000 a month, and the only ones who can afford houses anywhere near major coastal cities are people whose families invented fracking and/ or Scarlett Johannsen. Plus, I will not be in good enough physical condition to really hold my own on the Fury Road 10 years from now. Oh well, at least I have this Supreme x Hey Arnold hat, I guess.”
18. Have you ever wondered who should get your Supreme x Hey Arnold hat when you die?
19. Haley Joel Osment is 32 now. How fucked up is that??
20. Do you think the ’90s were five years ago?
Simply by taking this quiz, you have admitted that you are middle-aged. Sorry. Try some Pilates, it’s good for your back. Also, the Big Chill is actually a pretty solid film.