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Reflections on turning 60 – the good, the bad, and the ugly

So, you’re a man and you just turned 60? The world’s going to change for you. You’ve seen it coming already with your colleagues in their early and mid-60s. Suddenly, they’re gone. The company, the organization, wherever they’ve been slaving away (and perhaps even loving their work) doesn’t want them anymore. Policy dictates after 63 or maybe 65 yadayada… the email crosses their screen and if they’re lucky someone remembers to throw a party for them before they’re gone. Ah, except I forgot for a moment, there’s Covid to deal with – so no party either.

It’s coming to you soon. And unless you are one of the lucky few who has a good pension or independent wealth, you’re going to have to make a plan.

So, the first part of that plan is to do what your wife likely does much more often than you ever did – go and see the doctor for a check-up. Prostate, ECG, those scaly little bumps on the side of your cheek, just where the golf cap doesn’t shade the skin. Have them seen to. The good news is that you’ve probably got a lot of years still ahead of you. Medicine is getting better and better literally with each passing month. Things that crippled or killed our grandparents can be solved increasingly easily. Look at your ageing parents. They are doing much better than their parents. We can expect to be much healthier than any generation before us. Probably many of you already know this. You’ve already had your first knee op or are feeling that dull ache in your lower back that means a hip replacement is coming up. I was a war correspondent for many years until finally the weight of the flak jackets wore my back out. I got to the point where I was crippled with pain – and this is no metaphor – I couldn’t walk, I was shaking with agony. I lay on the floor at the doctor’s office, and he operated on me the next day. As I write this, I get a lump in my throat with the gratitude I feel for what modern medicine made possible. I hardly think of my back now. But I tell you what…. my hip is starting to niggle just the tiniest bit when I go for my daily walk. Let’s see, maybe yoga and stretching exercises will keep things together.

So, believe me, you’re likely going to be physically okay for a long time now; but its what’s in your head that holds the most unexpected surprises. You’ve seen your colleagues kicked to the curb. You’ve had the conversations when they hit 62 and they say “what am I going to do? I don’t have a clue.”

“Ah well,” you replied. “Something will come up.” But behind the next sip of Johnny Walker Black he took, you won’t forget the look of fear, anger, and looming humiliation. Usually something does seem to sort of work out. But it’s not a given.

Most of us are going to still be working for another 15 to 20 years yet. And trust me on this, just about no one’s going to give you another job. Even for us freelancers, after a certain age, the phone stops ringing. It’s emotionally the same as getting the two-line email. You’ve been working this career for 35, 40 years and you’re really good at it. And, if you are like me, you’ve loved every minute of it. But suddenly, or slowly, if you’re lucky, the carpet is whipped out from under your feet, and, as Tom Petty put it (remember how we partied to him?) you’re freefalling.

It’s going to hurt like hell. And all sorts of old damage from your childhood or teen years or your divorce will come back to haunt in ways you thought you’d long ago put behind you. And you won’t know who the hell you are anymore.

Be prepared for this. You can’t tough it out. It’s real. It’s life-shattering, and it happens to all of us. It’s what Dante wrote about in the Inferno, getting lost in a dark wood with the road “wholly lost and gone.”

But that’s not the end of the story. Dante also wrote two more books about this journey of life: Purgatory and Paradise. I don’t think the voyage ahead is that clear or that simple, but know this: there is a way out of that dark forest that you will find yourself lost in. There are a myriad of ways. And if you haven’t already started, dive into the internet and the digital world. Wrestle with it daily, learn its ways. There are millions to be made there, and you don’t have to be Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos just to pull in a few thousand bucks here and there. Or use it to grow a business you are running from your garage with the help of a couple of formerly jobless youth.

If you’re really lucky you get to be a consultant for a while, or perhaps mentor younger people. I’ve started doing both and I love it.
Basically, you’ll probably have to become an entrepreneur of some sort. It’s a different thing altogether from getting a consulting contract. Believe me there are a whole host of 50-year-olds waiting to grab that away from you.

Being an entrepreneur sounds a lot sexier than it is most days, but there are also so many opportunities out there that you will begin to find once you’ve stopped grieving for who you were for the last 40 years and begin to accept who and where you are now.

The “golden years” of retirement are a tired old myth created by advertisers for insurance companies when we were in our teens and twenties and watched our grandparents retire on secure pensions. That way of life is gone, if it ever really existed in the first place. It’s not an option for most of us now – men or women – we will have to find a way to keep making it on our own.

Forget about the myth – remember instead just how lucky we really are to be turning 60. We ain’t old yet, no matter how our ageist society largely regards us. So many more years lie ahead, and within each one of those are so many golden days to enjoy with those we love and to celebrate our new, unexpected, and better yet, still unimagined, successes.

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