In 1976 journalist Gail Sheehy authored a book called Passages that continues to sell well today. In it she described each of the several decade-long stages of adult life along with the associated characteristic crises, challenges, and responses. Her observations have merit, but if, instead of our decimal number system, we used base 8 or base 12, I suspect we would divide our lives into 8- or 12-year stages instead. This suspicion is reinforced by a 2014 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that notes the importance of ages ending in 9. At 29, 39, 49, and so on, we are more likely to cheat on partners, take up a new sport, open a new business, get engaged, or commit suicide than in other years. Birthdays of _9 years hit us harder than others. The prospect of a new decade and the imminent expiration of the current one make us think about what we have, what we missed, and what we still have time to do.
Age-awareness is not just a personal psychological matter. There are real world consequences to age. There is a difference between 29 and 30 or between 49 and 50 on online dating sites and (however much employers deny it) with job availability. Cut-off dates, overtly stated or not, are built into much of life.
1976: My sister looks happier about
my birthday than I do
Since today is my birthday (which prompted this blog) I can attest that at least one year ending in 4 also is portentous, though that owes much to an arbitrary rule of the US entitlement system. I can’t say the 9s, though, ever did much for me – or to me. Perhaps it is just denial, but it always has taken a few years into a new age-decade for me to think of myself as being in it. After few years delay, however, the stereotypical reactions finally do set in – for example the classic 40s worry, “If I don’t do this now [marry, divorce, adopt, learn to play an instrument, or whatever] I never will.” Those thoughts can lead to some very rash decisions. I know they did in my case.
Nonetheless, in any year there is something satisfying about a holiday that is all about oneself – and the other 1/365ths of the population who share it. True, I no longer expect to unwrap boxes with toys inside, but I’ve learned to appreciate the present of just being here for one more change of digits. For that reason (plus Thanksgiving, on which my birthday sometimes falls) November is my favorite month. I’m fond of the number 28 too, though not enough to use in a PIN.
Devil Doll: Queen of Pain, posted below for no other reason than containing the lyric, “But now it's the month of November: your favorite time of year.”