Lies, says Yasmin Alibhai-Brown - women still face rampant ageism. Not so, argues Virginia Ironside: middle age brings serenity to all
According social scientists at the MacArthur Foundation, there is no such thing as mid-life agony, only mid-life ecstasy. After talking to 8,000 middle-aged Americans (who inhabit a different planet from the rest of us) we have been told to rejoice in the knowledge that the 40- to-60 age bracket is the best. I wish I'd known this yesterday as I struggled to dye my hair black so I wouldn't look like a female version of John Humphrys; unlike him, I would not get away with such a bold statement of my advancing years. He loves it and has delivered a seductive anti- youth manifesto, asking the middle aged to stop cowering inconspicuously in beige cardigans. The good life is here for those like him in ways that were once unimaginable.
What bosh, John. We may be living longer and better and have more money and continuing dreams in our heads, but middle age is more terrifying today than it has ever been, especially for a woman. A close friend's mother, a formidable Punjabi woman, put it like this: "When we reached 40, our lives became peaceful and powerful. Age gave us power in the home and freedom from childbirth and the pressures of good looks. The men settled down and appreciated us and we put down all the heavy suitcases of life. You modern women are carrying more and more suitcases. You will be finished by the age of 40." How right she is.
We, the daughters of the Sixties, thought that, by releasing ourselves and launching women into modernity, we'd never grow or feel old. Feminism brought us sexual freedoms (a dubious victory) and economic power. But these brought new pressures - more suitcases - to add to the other baggage which has remained firmly in our hands.
We must be professional, ever-more imaginative cooks and, like Helen Mirren, relentlessly clever and rampantly sexy till we die.
Menopause? What menopause? We have to pretend this crucial biological junction is a terrifically positive or negligible moment in our packed lives. We cannot give it the time or emotion needed. Then if there is a he, there is his fear of mortality and mid-life crisis to nurse. Women may be breaking through glass ceilings, but how many of them have been abandoned like Margaret Cook or find they are alone at 40-something? Why is cosmetic surgery today one of the biggest growth areas among women of a certain age? Even the staggeringly successful Fay Weldon does not have the confidence to age as nature intended.
Then there are the children and their fears as young adults in an increasingly complex world. Most of the ones I know prefer to ask their mothers for the support they need. Dad is too busy. So before the young start demanding ageing pills so they can join us in paradise, perhaps we should look around and see middle age for what it really is.
Despite the fact that I was a mini-skirted raver in the Sixties, I never enjoyed being young. It was a time of acute anxiety, a desperation for a man, too much sex with people I knew too little, too much drink, too many drugs. I couldn't say no; I hated saying yes. Life could only get better. And it did.
Now it turns out, according to an American survey, that people in middle age are living in one of the most serene and fulfilled times of their lives. They're having it all. Me, too.
What's so great about middle-age? There's the pleasure of having millions of excellent books to re-read because I have forgotten the contents. Having the courage to say "I hate the theatre" and never going again. Realising dimly that there are things I like doing and some I don't and not doing the things I don't. Even the physical side of being middle-aged is not too bad, with the aid of hormone replacement therapy, hair colour and the surgeon's knife.
An entirely new relationship opens up - with younger people. I'm more flattered to be rung by a 20-year-old girl and asked out for a drink than I am to be taken out to dinner with a glamorous old divorce. And I love the role of being a woman who has "lived". "You were at the Isle of Wight Festival when Bob Dylan was there?" say the young, in awe. "And you danced to Ike and Tina Turner when they were playing at a low-down Soho dive? Wow!" What seemed to me like a depressing, seedy past takes on a new magic.
This is the age to be middle aged because, unlike the middle aged of my parents' generation who didn't have a clue what young people were up to, the present generation of middle aged have a faint whiff. I wear black; they wear black. I find Bill Bailey and The Larry Sanders Show funny; they find it funny too.
With middle age comes maturity and though I suspect there is always an unconfident eight-year-old inside every one of us, at least in middle age it is balanced by a new-found serenity and courage - courage to argue one's point in shops, to ask tricky question of doctors, the courage to ask if one doesn't understand the meaning of a word. And there's the serenity that, even at the worst times, one can truthfully say: "This, too, will pass."
A 16th-century French philosopher once said: "Si jeunesse savoit; si vieillesse pouvoit", meaning, roughly, "If only the young had the wisdom of older people, and if only older people had the capacity and energy of young people to put their wisdom into practice".
In middle age there are a few years when it seems that both are possible. One is both wise and able - well, wise-ish and able-ish, and, surely, it must be one of the most pleasurable times of one's life.