THE FIFTY-YEAR CRISIS: A PECULIAR TURNING POINT

(No, I’m not suffering from writer’s block, which would be ironic given my last post. The problem is that every subject I’ve come up in the last ten days for raving and ranting about here is so problematic that I have given up all of them. The one I am dealing with her seems to be the safest one… Yes, there is a measure of self-censorship at work here.)

I’ll be 50 in about one month, a figure I like. For women, 50 tends to be associated with the biological changes caused by the onset of menopause and although it would be tempting to write a post about the cultural readings of this natural transition this is not what I am up to today. Some other time.

In this strange time in which we seem to be stretching a whole decade into the next one, I am constantly being told by kind friends and relatives not to worry for, after all, 50 is the new 40. This confuses me very much because a) 50 is 50, as 40 is 40, b) since this chronological stretching manifests itself for all decades and everyone seems younger than people the same age did thirty years ago, 50-year-old women look distinctly like 50-year-old women.

Famously, Oscar Wilde declared that “The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young” which, of course, means that one is not aware of one’s own ageing in the same way others are. I am not kidding myself that I am still 20 inside, however, for I am surrounded by 20-year-old female students and it would be foolish of me to pretend that I’m younger than I am. The young have an instinct for detecting that kind of phoniness… Also, generally speaking, I find myself enjoying my actual age and gleefully celebrating each new birthday. The only thing I certainly don’t care about is being addressed as ‘señora’ by strangers, a term I certainly prefer to the appalling ‘señorita’ used for young women but that is often used with a sneer or, at least, a clear wish to indicate ‘you’re old and I’m not’. Twice already, courteous young people have offered me their seat on the train, which I’ll attribute to my always carrying too many bags rather than to my ageing looks. Hopefully…

A few weeks ago a dear male friend whom I have known since we were both 14 hit 50. He is also an academic (mixing Sociology and Media Studies), though he has been a full professor for a few years already and, hence, as you will see, in a slightly different frame of mind. It’s always funny to discover that the processes one goes through regarding private matters–like how to face the next period of one’s life–turn out to be shared by many other people. And this is what happened with my friend which, surely, you can also attribute to our having parallel academic lives. We both agreed that when you turn 50 and you are a ‘privileged’ academic, secure in his or her job, the new buzzword looming on the horizon is ‘retirement’. This may sound callous and insensitive to the scholars still struggling for tenure (and at the rate we’re going now, this includes colleagues not much younger than myself) but it’s the truth.

I was hired by my Department aged 25, which means that next 15 September I’ll be celebrating another significant date: my 25th anniversary as a university teacher. Even if I retire at the ripe age of 70, as Spanish legislation allows, this means that my career can stretch for just 20 years at most. Naturally, it could stretch longer if I go on publishing academic work past retirement, for, essentially, retirement means for us that we stop teaching. If we can afford it. Precisely, we have started asking our Department colleagues about their plans for retirement, for it turns out that 6 of them are aged between 59 and 63. This is a bit awkward but we just need to know what we’re going to do with our fast ageing tenured staff in the next ten years. Their reactions were diverse but, from what I see, money is the main concern.

Until before the crisis civil servants (and tenured university teachers belong in that category) could draw a pension after only 30 years of service which means that, if you were willing to accept the reduced pay, you could retire before 60. The IP I have been working with in the past few years retired at 57, though she is still very much active in research. Under this rule, which no longer applies, I could have retired at 55, which sounds totally crazy to me. Provided I can afford it, then, I am planning for 65 or 67 at the most because a) 40 years as a teacher will do, b) I don’t see myself connecting with students almost 40 years younger than me and c) I see too many people dying around 60 to believe I’ll reach 93, the age my grandmother was when she died last summer.

Sorry to sound so grim but I’m an extremely pragmatic person and in view of what I see happen every day, I need to take death into account. Yes, it’s the fear of mortality that so much Literature talks about and it is certainly the hardest part of ageing. Funnily, I went through a very profound hypochondriac bout at 30 when I was writing my PhD dissertation, mortally afraid (ha, ha…) that I would die before finishing it. Realizing, once the thing was submitted, the silliness of it all, I decided to face life as it came in a kind of perpetual ‘carpe diem’ (highly recommended against hypochondria).

I am certainly digressing today… must be my ageing brain…

The conversation with my friend revealed that 50 is when you count your academic eggs in the basket and ponder what they are worth and whether you want to go on producing them at the same crazy rhythm. The answer is no. A relative no. In the Humanities 50 is still a rather young age, the time when you may turn out to be ‘wise’, if that word still makes any sense, after decades of reading. It is also the age in which you tell yourself that ‘since what I love doing is reading, why don’t I simply use all my time for it?’. It’s very tempting. This is why the ages between 50 and 55 are, I’m sure, the time when many researchers start to slow down, not because they lose interest in their subjects (quite the opposite) but because they want to be let alone by a system that demands an absurd, stressful productivity offering very little reward.

At this point and after twenty-odd years of teaching my friend has decided to teach exclusively online, a possibility that his university offers; another dear male friend chose to transfer to UNED at a similar age. I have tried online teaching myself and I know that I need personal contact with my students, but I also know that this year for the first time I am teaching in a more detached, mechanical way, pretending I don’t notice the students’ disinterest (with few exceptions). My sociologist friend has run a diversity of research projects and is a well-known scholar, with an enviable h-index and all that. Possibly because he is already a full professor and, hence, lacks the enticement (carrot?) of becoming one I can see he is fast losing interest in accumulating more achievements. He is clearly aiming at pleasing himself in his research and this is what he advised me to do–a course for which I am certainly aiming. As my friend told me, the way we’re valued should be a logical result of our academic career, meaning that if you go out of your way only to accrue merits you’re heading for deep disappointment.

I have in my own Department and among the six most senior colleagues past 59 good examples of academic hyperactivity, one in particular who positively bloomed when reaching 50 or thereabouts. This is always an enticement. What drains the energy of any ageing scholar are the achievements of the very young, for this is when you start thinking that you’ve already missed the chance to do this or that. Perhaps one of the most glaringly overlooked aspects of our academic monitoring system is that its obsession for productivity is ageist, in that it requires an amount of energy impossible to sustain in the long run. Or not just impossible but also counterproductive, for past certain age one starts losing the concern about what others may think and this is how academic careers dwindle and evaporate.

To sum up the argument here, while most people place the midlife crisis around 40 (at least the Spanish idiom is ‘la crisis de los 40’), I find that for a Humanities teacher/researcher this happens, rather, at 50. It is not, however, a sad time in which you bemoan what will not be but a happy time when you start enjoying what I can only call, in the best sense, maturity.

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2 thoughts on “THE FIFTY-YEAR CRISIS: A PECULIAR TURNING POINT

  1. I couldn’t agree more with Ali, academic or non-academic…it’s an intelligent opinion.

    I’ll reproduce the quotation by Keanu Reeves, 50 today, which you have just sent me (see his Instagram account): “You see these people behind me? They are rushing to work and not paying attention to anything. Sometimes we get so caught up in our daily lives that we forget to take the time out to enjoy the beauty in life. It’s like we’re zombies. Look up and take your head phones out. Say Hi to someone you see and maybe give a hug to someone who looks like they’re hurting. Help out someone. You have to live every day like it’s your last. What people don’t know about me is that I had depression a couple of years back. I never told anyone about it. I had to fight my way out of depression. The person who was holding me back from my happiness was ME. Every day is precious so let’s treat it like that. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, so live today! I hope you share this post to spread love this holiday.”

    Not academic either, but so very right…
    Sara

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