Tales of greybeard and the Middle-Aged Blokes Club

When Nigel Bowen’s beard turned grey, he abruptly entered the Middle Aged Blokes Club and found some remarkable benefits.

By Nigel Bowen

Last week, I had yet another of the strange encounters I’ve been having with increasing frequency of late.

Shortly after I entered a lift, a gentleman of a similar vintage to me helpfully observed, “The lift door opens this side, mate.”

Rather than taking prickly umbrage, as I may have in my younger years, I grinned back and said, “Thanks, mate, I can never remember how these things work.”

After we both exited the lift, with me still puzzling over our pleasant but unnecessary interaction, I caught sight of my reflection in a store window.

‘Oh yeah,’ I thought, ‘I’m now a greybeard’.

Late-onset visible ageing  

I’ve always looked young for my age. I mention this not to boast but to provide background for my abrupt induction into the Middle-Aged Blokes Club (MABC).

My beard turned grey seemingly overnight late last year. While the structure of my baby face didn’t change, the explosion of silvery whiskers dangling from it meant the jig was up.

People (of all ages) suddenly started reacting to me as a 52-year-old, which is what I am, rather than someone who just possibly might still be on the young side of 40.

Rightly enough, there is a growing debate about the scourge of ageism. I’ve contributed to that discussion, but I don’t want to lament the downsides of being youthfulness-challenged in a youth-obsessed society here. Instead, I want to highlight an unforeseen upside of becoming middle-aged. One which I was oblivious to until my beard betrayed me.

Writer Nigel Bowen before and after suddenly becoming a grey beard

One of the consolations of age

Whatever contumely may be heaped upon you nowadays for being a stale male – even worse, in my case, a pale, stale male – you do at least receive a complimentary membership of MABC.

The first rule of MABC – albeit one I’m only now promulgating – is that you do talk about MABC.

Hell, you’ll talk about anything if there’s a captive audience. After all, you’ve now got plenty of time for a natter, especially if it provides an opportunity to vent about the world going to hell in a hand basket.

While the female of the species largely remains a mystery even at this stage of life, I get the impression there’s a Middle-Aged Blokettes Club roughly equivalent to the MABC.

Kindly ladies of a certain age have initiated conversations with me since I was young, but it seems to be happening much more often nowadays.

These interactions are rarely flirtatious. Indeed, they are usually devoid of any type of frisson. But I typically find having a middle-aged woman engage me in conversation about ridiculous grocery prices in the checkout line (“You could buy a watermelon for five cents back in my day!”) just as enjoyable as having a middle-aged man correct my positioning within a shopping centre lift.    

‘Older people’ come in different flavours

While nobody under 50 will ever understand this, there are old people and then there are old people. Those who study these things divide those of us ‘on the back nine’ into three broad categories: the young old (60-74), the middle-old (75-84) and the oldest-old (85-eternal reward).

The good news for those in the 50-64 age group is that they aren’t even yet in the ‘Young Old’ category.

If you’re 52, your life probably isn’t much different than it was at 42. This undermines the conventional explanation for why people mellow with age. The ‘U-shaped happiness curve’ hypothesis posits that the middle-aged are chilled because they’ve climbed life’s steepest mountains.

But if you’re the typical fifty-something Australian, you haven’t yet finished raising your kids. You probably still have a mortgage. (If you were lucky enough to get on the property ladder at all.) As for that round-the-world cruise, the retirement age has already drifted upwards to 67 and will probably drift even higher in the coming years.

So, if the middle-aged aren’t more serene because they’ve finished their tour of adulting duty, what’s facilitating the MABC?

Making every day a good day

Decreasing testosterone levels must have something to do with the existence of MABC.

But this is, at most, a partial explanation for my age cohort’s prosocial behaviour.

Back when I was a disreputable men's magazine editor, the criminal Chopper Read used to work for me. No matter how quickly he was paid – and, trust me, I impressed upon the pay office the existential importance of processing his invoice ASAP – Chopper would invariably ring me to enquire where his money was.

We would always exchange pleasantries – Read was raised by devout Christians and often conducted himself with incongruous old-world courtesy – and I would invariably be informed early on in the call that “any day above ground is a good day”.

You don’t appreciate the wisdom of that statement until you’ve repeatedly watched people you know transition from above ground to below ground.

It doesn’t even need to be individuals you have a relationship with. Just witnessing the celebrities you grew up with– Matthew Perry, Sinéad O’Connor and Shane McGowan, to name some recent departures – ‘transition’ is enough to make you brutally aware that we are all only around for the blink of an eye.

Once you know that deep in your bones, you belatedly realise many things you thought were important really aren’t. And many things you thought were trivial, such as seizing spontaneous opportunities to connect with other people out doing their weekly grocery shop, can be unexpectedly profound.    

You also understand that if you cross paths with an individual of a certain age who has forgotten to wear their glasses to the shopping mall – be warned, young pups, the eyesight goes first and then the memory – you should immediately offer to help guide them to safety.    

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