This week's problem: Diana survived being 30, and 40 too, but now she's coming up for 50. She wanted to give a party to celebrate, but her husband, 55, thinks it best to keep quiet about it, particularly as she's mini-skirted and young-looking. Now, whi...
"Life begins at 40," they say. So what's the gung-ho slogan for reaching the half-century? Well, there isn't one. And the reason is surely because 50 is, for nearly all of us, an uncomfortable watershed.

Most young people consider themselves invulnerable and imagine they'll live for ever, but after 50 you enter the "death zone", as a grim-humoured old friend of mine used to say. Mortality stares you in the face; friends start popping off like leaves from the trees. This reality is something that many over-fifties, like Diana's husband, would prefer not to think about. (Though of course it could be that he's just a vain man who doesn't like to publicise the fact that his wife is middle-aged.)

Certainly if she reveals her age, other people will perceive Diana differently. Young-looking she may be, but they'll see her as young-looking "for her age". They will see her, rightly, as having a different cultural background from younger people but then assume, wrongly, that because of it she cannot be quite as in touch with the moods of today as she would be were she the other side of the half-century.

Despite the fact that there are now more people over 50 than under, jobs in the UK and US are virtually unobtainable for them. In Eastern societies, elder statesmen go on for ever, and women become more revered as the years go by, but here a cult of youth has remained since the Sixties.

These aren't considerations that Diana should necessarily take into account. She's welcome to give two fingers to society and swing from chandeliers at her party. Her husband's anxiety shouldn't prevent her from celebrating in any way she wants. If that's the way she likes it, good for her.

But I feel that keeping your age to yourself is, in the end, about privacy and self-respect. Despite the kind of glasnost that most readers recommended about their age (the number of "fat, frumpish, 50 and proud of it" letters made depressing reading), it's still considered just as bad mannered to ask anyone - men and women - their age as it is to ask them how much they earn. And unless there's a particular reason, I feel there is also something rather undignified about revealing those two facts, unasked, as well.

While I'm not recommending face-lifts and toyboys (indeed Diana's mini- skirts made me shudder slightly), I still think there is a lot to be said, from 50 onwards, for looking elegant rather than overtly sexy (that goes for men and women, by the way), and being discreet about one's age. If I were Diana, no, I would not give a party. But then perhaps I'm just old-fashioned.

readers' responses

For the past 34 years when asked about my age I have replied that I am too old to admit it, but not old enough to boast about it. I have a nasty feeling I should have started boasting some years ago, but I still like to kid myself I look younger than I am.

A grandmother, Bridport, Dorset

So, Diana's dilemma is that she's well and truly middle-aged and not able to admit it? If there's a problem about revealing one's age, then that person definitely has a problem - and it is nothing to do with being "a certain age", whatever that is. If, by reaching 50, anyone feels well and truly middle-aged then, barring illness that might overtake anyone, Diana will be "old" before too long. Not in years, but in attitude.

My mother was "young" all her days, laughing and smiling to the end of her 68 years when illness, leukaemia, overtook her. Never once did she complain about anything and certainly would never have considered the ticking of the clock a problem. She was just glad to be alive each day. She taught me that it is a person's spirit that matters, not the date on a birth certificate.

Shirley Nield, Inverness-shire

I feel passionately that women must change their own destinies. Many of them wear totally unsuitable clothes, particularly at work, all for fear of acquiring a few lines and going grey. But what man is going to respect a woman who makes sex an issue in board meetings?

Teresa Gorman MP was reported a while ago to have falsified her age to her local selection committee. She was making the point that older women otherwise tend to be shouldered out of public life. Only women can change this by starting to believe that age does bring benefits and that beautiful or well-groomed older women can knock spots off their younger sisters and daughters.

Georgina Natzio, Norwich

Go ahead and celebrate. What's the point of lying? I believe 50 is a turning point in women's lives - a time to enjoy achievements and begin to realise all those dreams left to one side while child-rearing or working. Celebrate your youth and maturity. Women of 50 are so much more interesting and vital, still young enough to enjoy life to the full and old enough not to worry about what other people think or say - a really important role model for our younger sisters. Happy Birthday, too.

Sue, London

next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

Our nine-month-year-old son is driving us mad. He wakes about five times a night, and I am still breast-feeding him. Occasionally, in desperation, we've let him sleep the night in our bed, which certainly makes life easier, but my friend says that we're making a rod for our own back, that he has to learn to sleep by himself, and that firm but kindly discipline is the answer. My husband's not too bothered either way. Anything for a quiet life, he says. But I'm so worried. If we have him in our bed, I feel we're spoiling him and maybe storing up bad habits for the future. If I make him sleep in his cot in his room, he screams and I'm exhausted. How have other readers coped?

Yours sincerely, Chloe

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send any relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, the Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2182, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.

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