Life Begins at 40 - Now I Know What It Means

So you've heard the saying “life begins at 40”, but what does it really mean? Until recently I’ve never really understood how life can begin at 40. Is there some sudden change? Is there a secret we get told on our 40th birthday? I've tried asking people, but no one could really give me an answer as to what changes or why. In this article I'll explore my interpretation of this saying, and how it relates to me.

A photo of a birthday cake with 40 candle on it

Before I get started I think it's worth noting that 40 is just an approximation, for me it was 42, for others it will be earlier or later than that.

To answer one of my previous questions, no, there is no secret you get told. Instead there's a change that occurs over the span of a few weeks, months or years that affects your perception of life and your ability to focus on what's important to you. A form of self-actualisation occurs.

The saying “life begins at 40” seems to mainly be uttered by people from my parents’ generation. These days I've heard it questioned that it should be 50, but more on that later.

First, what happened at 42 for me to think “life has begun”? It started with some debts getting paid off and was coupled with a new job and an associated increase in pay. It was influenced by my child no longer being a dependent. The removal of financial concerns allowed me the space to think about my priorities in life. Thinking about my priorities allowed me to put energy into what’s important to me.

For me, life beginning at 42 has meant I have a feeling of freedom and focus without the need to concentrate on day-to-day survival.

Back to the question of should it be changed to “life begins at 50”. My parents’ generation usually had children in their mid to late 20s, this meant by age 40 the children were in their mid to late teens, didn't require as much care, and were looking to leave home in the foreseeable future. With people having kids later in life, there's a good argument that this may delay the freedom and space to achieve self-actualisation.

But do kids really have such an impact, and are they the main thing stopping us from beginning life earlier? To this I say a resounding ”no”! The ability to achieve self-actualisation has lots of impediments, children are just one of these, but may also be a requirement to set us up for some self-learning and self-assessment.

In order to start the self-actualisation process we need to have undergone some hardships. These may be financial, spiritual, emotional, or physical, but no matter what the hardship is, it's creating pressure, it's blocking the ability to focus on yourself. If we've lead an easy life it's likely that we won't have the impetus to look within. If we've had some challenges we'll have a greater desire to find what really fulfills our desires. Thus, we can see that the sacrifices made as a parent could be a significant driver for this process to occur.

I still haven't said why I don't think the age should be changed to 50 though. Despite the lifestyle changes that have occurred over the last 70 years or so, many factors have not changed. By 40 we've still been considered an adult for around 20 years, we’ve worked for a good portion of that time (hopefully), we've gained debts and got them paid off (although some likely still remain). That 20 years of fending for ourselves has caused us pleasure and pain. As we approach 40, for most of us we've managed to get our debt under control, established a routine, and settled into a sense of “normality”. We've finally found a space where we can use some downtime to start the process of self-actualisation.

Rather than go straight from after work drinks on Friday night to a club, we go home. Maybe we read a book, maybe watch some TV, play a computer game, it doesn’t matter, our subconscious starts ticking, it’s working out what fulfills us. Slowly the thoughts surface and we start applying our desires at work and at home. For some this is a change in relationship, or a change in career; if we're lucky neither of those occur, and we just get to apply our newly discovered passions to our existing life.

In my case my self-actualisation allowed me to sort out some far overdue financial situations, it gave me a desire to improve my health, it helped me to discover what I want from my career. I'm now passionate about walking; I've realised I want to get into a leadership role; I've recognised and accepted my career-driven nature; and I've embraced my inner geek.

I now understand why “life begins at 40”, it's because I've learnt what I want in life, now that I know what I want I have a chance to work toward it, I have a chance to enjoy the journey, and I no longer feel restrained by my situation.

On the slight chance my parents read this, thank you for all the support and guidance to get me here. I'm happy to say I now feel like I can comfortably say I'm independent and I hope I can help you during your retirement in the same way you helped me in my formative years. I don't know if you're proud of me, and I'm not sure if knowing one way or the other would impact me; but I do know that I have goals, goals that will push me, goals that I hope (if achieved) will make you proud of my achievements; maybe if I'm lucky you'll still be around to see them, if not, I hope that you lives are fulfilling, both you full life, and the one that began at 40.