I just turned 60. The only thing shameful about being 60 years old is how the rest of you treat us! Recently I spoke with my Indonesian banker friend, Ani, who was forced to retire at the young age of 55. She said, “I have never been better at my job. I can’t believe they are throwing me away when I have the most to offer”. Yet another American friend left her full time work with a reputable aid agency in Jakarta to allow her teenaged son to experience high school in the US. With her management experience she landed a great job with her local government council. Three years later, she was made redundant due to budget cuts. No one hires 57-year-old women in the US. Not quite into her ‘golden’ years, Kay was forced to move back into her mother’s house and has remained unemployed these past few years. So much experience, ability, and talent, yet again, thrown away. What is it with a society that so easily rejects age and ability?
While society tosses us asunder as finished, done, retired, almost dead, all it feels like to me and many of similar age is, well, glorious! As a number, sure it sounds bafflingly old. I am officially vintage, if not yet a true antique. As I approached 60, I thought I should embrace ‘old age’ by no longer coloring my hair (fire engine red), by not wearing my preferred vintage-style clothes, and by just accepting my age and slowing down a bit. But that passed quickly, as I henna’ed my hair again, donned tight pedal-pushers, and started writing this little ode to aging. I love being old! I love all of this knowledge and experience I have accrued, and holding onto fashions, music, film, and the arts of my youth, because, yes, they are so much nicer and happier than current trends! (Try comparing Bye-Bye Birdie to Fast and Furious!)
I am proud to be 60. I never lie about my age, and never have – despite occasionally wondering how my brondong (much younger) husband of more than 20 years feels about it. I correct people who reply “17 again”, or “29 again” or anything below the truth. After all, most things old were built better, to last, like me. Right?
Despite knowing first hand the fabulous music and styles of the 50s and 60s, and having been a punk rocker in the 70s, with age comes experience, knowledge, confidence, and most of all, an awareness of self, a calm, soothing, well-earned self-respect. Who cares if I gain weight now? I don’t. And yep, bits n pieces of my body are heading south. Crows feet line my face and arms and neck like a roadmap showing the many routes I’ve taken to get where I am now. These are not shameful signs of age, but rather evidence of a life well lived. Oh the stories these lines can tell you!
As I was growing up in New York City in the 1960s and 70s, we knew about and became involved in some of the first feminist movements and marches. In my youth, I hitch-hiked across America many times safely. I started skydiving in high school, before high performance square parachutes were available. Jumps cost $4.00 a go. My generation was the first to have free access to birth control (my friends and I all cut school en masse to take the bus to our nearest Planned Parenthood clinic to sign up – whether we needed birth control or not!). Our recreational drugs were safe (yea, I grew up in New York); our recreational sex, HIV free (it was the 60s and 70s, mind you). I went to CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City almost nightly in their heyday in the late 70s. Now, these past experiences help me become a fabulous life skills trainer for youth today. Yes, I speak from experience and can very openly and honestly provide kids with information and respect through which they should make their own decisions – based on balanced information, not ignorance or religious dogma. My growth was based in an era that may arguably have been one of the freest, most exciting moments in modern history. I feel so blessed to be 60!
In my childhood, we played outside and made our games and toys ourselves. We were invincible as we conquered the moon on my 14th birthday. We had so many choices and really could accomplish anything we set our minds to. Or so we were all told then and still believe now.
On the down-side, of course, was the sexism. My student advisor insisted I not take science classes and take art and English instead “because I was a girl and that is what girls study”. But from what younger people tell me, that silliness has not yet disappeared.
In grad school in the US as a mature student, I was fairly horrified at how ‘feminism’ seemed to have disappeared from women younger than me; how young women measured their beauty, their bodies, their success by the boyfriends they had, or didn’t have. Being single was shameful. So many of them were on anti-depressants and seeing psychiatrists to help them deal with life in general. Their focus was always on themselves. Self-pity, personal feelings, personal needs was the focus rather than on more global, or other outwardly focused requirements. Was that a generational difference too?
And while so many of my peers are experiencing forced retirement or unemployment, I also currently face difficulties because of my experience and idealism. As a development project evaluator, many international aid organizations are reluctant to hire me because I am honest and forthright at my job. If a project has weaknesses, I report on them. If a project has harmful repercussions on the target community, I make this known. When a donor makes demands that are beyond the abilities of the implementer, or the contracted organization outsources to far less-experienced local organizations without providing the capacity building these local organizations require, I report on this too. Apparently, most organizations are not interested in true reports. They would rather hire far less experienced, younger, less frank evaluators who are loathe to report anything negative – or bite the hand that feeds them, as many of them have admitted to me. Is this too a generational difference? Has the courage, idealism and belief that I can and must make a difference been stamped out of those younger than me?
Kids today seem worse off to me than they were in my day. They have lost that creative energy and self-reliance we grew up with. They have certainly lost the innocence and safety I had as I travelled the world long before fears of terrorism and difference infected our news feeds and everyday lives. I grew up attracted to and in love with diversity of all kinds, not afraid or threatened by it. This new generation that seems to place fear and anger over curiosity baffles me. Narrow-mindedness is a disease that infects all around us. So yes, I am thrilled to be 60. I seem to have had access to the best our world has had to offer – before becoming tainted by the diseases of me-first, dependency, narrow-mindedness, and fear.
Yogyakarta, July 2015