What does it mean to be ‘over the hill’? It means you are halfway through your life, over the top, on the decline, and past your prime.
The phrase was first used in England in the early 1900s. If life is a hike up and over a hill, then when you reach the top you are at your prime and once you start walking over the hill and descending the other side you are over your prime and starting to descend into old age.
Generally speaking, turning 40 years old meant you were now over the hill. I remember my father’s 40th birthday specifically because of this, decorations abounded with the “over the hill” theme: napkins, balloons, banners, etc. It stuck with me then that 40 was a significant age.
Fast forward a few decades later when I turned 40 and I was like – there’s no way I’m over the hill!
Denial, or has the benchmark for old(er) age changed over time?
How ‘Old’ has Changed Over Time
As people thought the average life expectancy was 80 years, it made sense that the top of the hill would be half that: 40 years. According to Worldometer the average life expectancy of US citizens in 2020 is 79.11 years as opposed to the average world life expectancy of 73.2 years.
In the 1900s, the average global life expectancy was 31 years. This barely gave people time to raise their children. This may explain why children had to grow up so quickly. Many children were out working at the age of 14 and many girls married soon after.
Alexander the Great was a mere 18 years old when he (and his army) conquered Persia and by age 25 he had conquered most of the known world. By age 33, he was dead.
Lives were short and did not leave much time for childhood. Our longer life expectancy has given us the luxury of a long childhood. Many children only begin working after they have completed studying which can be anywhere between the ages of 18 and 26.
The average life expectancy of the world’s population has risen from 47 years in 1950 to 73.2 years in 2020.
So if one is over the hill at the halfway mark, people in the 1950s would have been over the hill on their 24th birthdays. This cannot be right. So there must be another measure to indicate when we are over the hill.
The medical world has advanced so much over the past 200 years. What might have killed us in the 1800s can now be cured with a quick visit to the doctor and a course of antibiotics. Two days in bed and you’re back at work, good as new. Things like viruses and bacteria that we could not see and could barely imagine can now be photographed and videoed.
The great leaps made in medicine have allowed us to keep our quality of life for longer. We may not only be living longer, but the years we have are more productive and enjoyable.
So, from this perspective, even though the average life expectancy of US citizens is 79.11, we cannot say that 40 is over the hill. 40 is now still considered rather young.
Forty is the new 30, no? Most people are still working, and climbing in their careers, at the age of 40 and will continue to do so into their 60s.
Different for Men and Women?
Interestingly females have a longer life expectancy than males across the world. In the US, the average life expectancy of females in 2020 was 81.7 years while males have a life expectancy of 76.6 years. Traditionally, women marry men older than themselves. It follows then that many more women will lose a spouse than men.
If we wanted to live out our days together with our partner, then statistically women should marry men about five years younger than themselves.
What About Future Generations?
It is said that the child that will live to be 200 years old has already been born. What does this mean for our world? According to the United Nations, approximately 140 million babies were born in 2020. If the average life expectancy jumps up just 10 years think of the strain this will put on our planet.
Fortunately, the global birth rate appears to be declining ever so slightly in recent years with a decrease of 1.12 % from 2019 to 2020. This is hopeful if we are to keep advancing in medicine and science and thus extending our life expectancy further.
What if Life Begins at 40?
Life begins at 40!
What a strange phrase and yet we hear it all the time. What does it really mean? Perhaps it means the fun begins at 40. For many people in 2000 by the time they turned 40 their children were growing up and were semi-independent.
Although their children may still have been at school, they could sort themselves out for the most part. They could make themselves a meal if they had to, study on their own for their exams and do their homework unaided. It was thus a time that parents could step back a little and start to live their own lives again.
They could become more involved at work or start up a new hobby. It was a time that one began to find oneself again after being lost in the chaos and blurriness of small child parenting. But today in the US, the average age of first-time mothers is 26 and the average age of first-time fathers is 31.
Considering that many couples have more than one child this will put their 40th birthdays slap bang in the middle of the small child parenting chaos. They will still be having sleepless nights, fighting for bedtimes, carting kids to school and practices, cooking food, feeding food, bathing kids…. The list is endless.
There is definitely no new, calm, self-reflecting life beginning at 40 for these couples. So perhaps, we should say life begins at 50. This would then mean that you could not possibly be over the hill until at least 50 years old.
Perhaps we say life begins at 40 because this is a time in your life when you have matured enough to not worry about what others say and think about you. You can then start living your life for yourself. If this is the case wouldn’t it be nice if life began at 30.
Age is Relative
Age, like so many things in life, is relative. My friend loves to say, “The only thing that fools people into thinking I’m an adult, is my age.” That friend is fun loving and always has a joke or a trick up his sleeve. Many people are filled with a young spirit and remain the mischievous boys they were even in the retirement home.
My friend and his best friend would joke that they would be racing each other in their wheel chairs down the retirement home passages. And I’m quite sure they will be. On the other hand, there are many 20-year-olds that are stayed in their ways and too afraid to try something new.
There are many people who are young in age but old in body and mind. Many are overweight and unfit which prevents them from being active and joining in activities that they should be able to enjoy with their friends. Physical fitness is one of the most important things in keeping ourselves young. Women can suffer from osteoporosis which can have debilitating effects in later life. Look at the differences between primary and secondary aging.
To prevent osteoporosis, one of the key elements is to do weight bearing exercises (amongst other things). Weight bearing exercises do not only prevent osteoporosis, but they also improve balance and coordination which can prevent falls. They lower cholesterol and a British Columbian study has even shown that weight bearing exercises improve brain function. Staying fit and keeping a healthy body weight is the best way to stay young.
What About Career Age?
Many careers such as teaching have a maximum age after which you are forced to retire. For teaching, in many countries, this age is 60 but you can get special concessions to continue teaching until the age of 65. But at 65 you are forced to retire even if you are at the top of your game. This is interesting considering both Biden and Trump were in their 70s when they sat in the White House leading the United States as president.
Some 40-year-olds would struggle to perform well in a job while some 70-year-olds would do a fantastic job. It is very unfair to lump people together according to their age as people age so differently.
You Are as Old as You Feel
I had a great aunt who played tennis every Saturday at the age of 85. And I know some teenagers that wouldn’t be able to complete one game of tennis, let alone a match, for lack of fitness. So it is a pity that we are defined by our age. But it is the sad truth.
Through our school age years we are boxed into classrooms and sports teams according to our age. A child cannot jump forward a few grades if s/he is exceptionally bright as s/he will then be the incorrect age for the grade. It is deemed unfair if an older child plays a sport for an age group below his/her own even though s/he might be smaller than the other players. New Zealand, on the other hand, has an interesting approach to coaching children in rugby.
Instead of splitting children into teams according to their age, they are split according to their weight. This allows all players to develop their rugby skills instead of allowing larger children to rely on their size to achieve success. This may account for the All Black’s excellent success in the world cup rugby over the years.
Other than New Zealand’s rugby coaching approach there are very few cases in which something other than age defines the categories for school going children. It is only after we leave school that age seems to take a back seat for a while before rearing forward again when we hit 60 and become pensioners.
This boxing of people together and discriminating against them according to their age has now become known as ‘ageism’ and refers usually to older citizens. The term was coined by Robert Neil Butler in 1969. Perhaps we felt a need for this term as the concept of ‘old’ and what is ‘too old to work’ has not kept up with modern medicine.
Our citizens are thus remaining young and capable beyond the age that they are being pushed out. Perhaps it is time then that individuals are judged on their capabilities rather than allowing something as arbitrary as age be the defining feature. But this is a difficult thing to do as age creeps in so slowly in most cases.
Being Over the Hill is the Fun Part
Age is a funny thing. In our heads we still feel 23. Our thoughts, our wishes, our excitement and enthusiasm for life remain as young as ever. It is our bodies that begin to let us down. Small chores that were once completed without a thought start to become a challenge.
Our memories are not what they were but we can still feel hurt and sad, we can feel love and happiness as though we are back on holiday having that summer fling. Don’t let being over the hill hold you back. As children, we used to trudge up to the top of the sand dune so we could have the thrill of rolling down.
The downhill is the fun part. We’ve done the hard work, the uphill climb. Enjoy the roll down.