Turning 54: delight, decay, nostalgia, the future

I was born 54 years ago today.

54_posterI’ve blogged about birthdays here a few times (2019, 2018, 2018, 2017).  There are other personal posts here, including one last month looking back at 2020.  This is awkward for me. Maybe it’s being generation X, or maybe spending too many years being self-effacing, or my suspicions of people who misuse autobiography to manipulate people, but it’s hard for me to write about myself.

So I can step back and get analytical with my humanist’s training.  54 is a pretty dull and inconsequential number.  It lacks the decade marker of 50 or 60. There’s no nifty echo as with 55. There aren’t any legal, policy, or cultural markers attached to it that I can find.  Not even Mike Tyson had much to add to the year’s particularity.

It’s not a number… or an age… that meant anything to me earlier in life. I’ve said before that as a child of the Cold War’s darkest years I never really imagined myself living past 30. I certainly didn’t have a picture of myself heading towards age 60. So it’s iffy, blank, open territory.  Which isn’t a bad thing.

As a futurist I look ahead.  That’s the job. So this points me into the middle of the 21st century and again I can leave autobiography behind. The years ahead are fascinating, dangerous, and exciting. I think of (among other things) social progress, climate change and its mitigation, progress in knowledge and technology, the demographic transformation of the species, and the wild array of political possibilities. (I’ve thought of writing a book about this, looking ahead to 2100.)

All right, back to personal me in that impersonal setting. I still can’t see retirement as a possibility, save by medical necessity. On the one hand I love what I do and don’t want to stop. On the other, I’m suspicious that the financial basis will be there for me to throttle back a full-time professional into a part-time “keeping my hand in.”

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

As tho’ to breathe were life!

My great fears are, actually, medical. That looms very large looking past 54. I fear losing my sight. A few years ago I got a slight taste of that with having to wear reading glasses. I dread losing my hearing, which I’m already witnessing with my father. Losing mobility (also my father, who only gets around with a rollator). Losing fine motor control.   It’s a staggered degradation I glimpse ahead, a personal demolition, a ruthless and painfully graduated reduction of powers, of access, of delight.

At the same time I rejoice in medical advances.  Some of you know I always celebrate health advances when I describe demographic changes.  Even in the teeth of 2020’s shambles we’ve seen incredible progress, most notably with the amazing COVID vaccines, still largely celebrated only by die-hard conservatives (and, once again, putting the notion of a “Republican war on science” in question). I mentioned my father’s woes above, but that he’s alive at all, pushing 90, is largely due to a string of medical triumphs.  I am not sure if I’ll have access to these life-extending and -improving services, given the woeful mess that is the American distribution of health care.

It might not matter, of course. I can easily be felled by any number of speedy demises: a heart attack (one grandfather had a truly disturbing number), an accident (I’ve lost several friends this way), a stroke (other friends), or aneurysm.  January’s Capitol riots reminded me also of the possibility of death by violence.  At any moment I can just – stop.

That gives me the classic memento mori.  This classically inspires people and certainly works for me.  There’s a beneficial flip side, though, the now-famous Swedish death cleaning. I look at my physical and digital stuff and wonder if each item is worth preserving after I die. That breeds a certain tidiness. It makes it easier to get rid of stuff, to quickly delete emails.  I dread my family having to waste their time going through useless things after I (say) am found dead at my desk, brain activity suddenly nullifed.

…and is this the trope that I’ll be living out, the cliche of an older person obsessing over death, declining health, and escalating medical woes?  Since I’m in good shape now, am I getting ahead of things, or falling towards hypochondria? Instinctively I resist all of that, and change the subject.

54, by Ben Campney

What am I doing with my time? How am I using my capacities? Am I wringing the most out of every breathing second?

There’s a lot for me to be proud of for this past year and the year to come.  My family is safe and sound during a horrible pandemic. Personally, the vegan experiment dropped me around 40 pounds and possibly added years to my lifespan. I’m planning on keeping up with it (down to 200 lbs is the goal). Our home is splendid.   We are resilient by any definition, and that feels damn good.

Professionally, I kept my business alive through a terrible economy. Heck, BAC is healthier than ever! Two awards came my way over the past year, each a delight. People read Academia Next and an audio version is in the works. Universities on Fire grows every day. I can turn back to my younger self and say: yes, I am now a writer, a published author.  That’s a lifetime goal realized, and realized from now on.

How is my time spent? It’s dedicated to the future of education, and that keeps going. I do the research and share my thoughts through teaching, interviews, this blog, writing books, giving talks, making other media, and that looks… pretty good so far.  People are interested and some find it useful. Some of my work is durable. I am at least doing what I set out to do.  It feels like I’m doing it well.

The flipside is I still work too much. I need to cut that back. 65-70 hour weeks are not sustainable. Other parts of life require more time. Maybe, maybe this is the year I can make this happen.

54 by Michael Coughlan

One sign of advancing age has failed to appear: thick skin, or not caring about others’ opinions. I am still too sensitive to slights real or imagined. I take other people’s thoughts very seriously for my work, yes, and that’s both rewarding and the right thing to do. But I keep opening up for others and finding myself hit, then obsessing over each blow.  If getting old means running out of fucks to give, I still have a plentiful supply of fucks in store, it seems.  I don’t know what makes that stock run down.

Another sign is somewhat apparent. Nostalgia does hit me at times.  I show older movies to my family and other folks and when they don’t immediately relish them I find myself defensive.  Some music played during the 1970s and 1980s sometimes hits me hard, while most popular music made afterwards is an alien blur.  Looking through my bookshelves (at long, long last set up!) is a surefire way to dive into memories. Ah, reading that novel in junior high, and where I walked, thinking about it. Teaching that collection at Centenary College in the late 1980s. The friend who gave me this book.  Talking with thus-and-so about that book.  The prof who interested me in this subject. My library is a faithful time machine.

At the same time I fight the past’s pull.  I’m a futurist, after all, and eagerly seek out the new, or at least the new to me.  I keep exploring YouTube and Bandcamp for more sounds. Video services provide more to watch.

A third sign is simple quiet – quiet from me. I don’t mean as a professional speaker, where people invite and even pay me to opine. I mean in conversations professional or otherwise. I listen carefully, more than I used to, I think. People’s words are important and I try to encourage them. Environmental sounds are also rich. I hear my children (in their early 20s) arguing, celebrating, and talking up a storm and feel so much more silent than they are, and wonder a) was I really that loud then? probably and b) how much quieter I am now.  After a point, though, we can’t assess ourselves well.  Am I now this different?

Do people play more games as they age? My intuition is divided on this.  On the one hand, I turn to the images of retirees working on puzzles, playing Bingo, etc. On the other I recall my teen obsessions with tabletop, role playing, and computer games. I don’t know how age marks play, actually. But the past year has seen me fall in love with games again. I taught gaming more than ever before, and that was delightful – er, for some students, too. I found myself turning to play games beyond my job, and that was heady.

So, looking ahead to the rest of 2021 and this ragged 21st century?

More work.  Maybe not at the nearly two full time jobs level, but keeping on with BAC and the future of education. Hopefully this is the year the podcast(s) happen(s).

The memento mori’s skull still grins at me. It keeps me going across all registers.

Hopefully my family stays safe from the pandemic and other threats.

And hopefully you all remain safe as well, dear readers.


T-54 by Adrian Kot

It’s a T-54, you see.


(images via Wikipedia, Ben Campney, Michael Coghlan, Adrian Kot)


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23 Responses to Turning 54: delight, decay, nostalgia, the future

  1. Vivian Forssman says:

    Happy Birthday Bryan! You’ve got many years ahead of you and we need your futures thinking more than ever.

    If people can survive the demanding job of being a President on their late ‘70’s, Tyer’s plenty of runway! Or, there are other things to do even if you have given up chopping wood.


  2. Deborah Penner says:

    Fifty-four is a very hard age to be. One is no longer young but not yet old. I will say from my vantage point of being 14 years your senior: Mature age has advantages. One has knowledge and experience that can be used to mentor younger faculty members. One has institutional memory about the ups and downs of teaching liberal arts. Administrators and students come and go but many faculty peers become lifelong friends. People that used to be a nuisance are gone or neutralized (did I say that?) 🙂 One’s children and grandchildren mature and grow to become friends. Do everything you can to preserve your health. A bit of care and regular exercise at 54 can pay off in better health later. Blessings on your day.

    • Ilene Frank says:

      Deborah, I agree with your assessment – from the vantage point of additional 7 years on you. 🙂

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Thank you, Deborah, for the sweet and thoughtful comments.

      I really should do more helping younger folks. I try to do this on the Future Trends Forum and, of course, in my teaching. Hmmm!

  3. Leigh Marthe says:

    Happy Birthday, Bryan. Many happy returns.

  4. Roxann says:

    Happy Birthday Bryan!
    I hope you enjoy(ed) your day! If I had half of your energy at 50, I would be in a state of euphoria for quite a long time. Someone wise say “Time and age are relevant to those who think they are!”
    My wish for you, is to enjoy many moments today to celebrate all your awesome accomplishments personally and professionally 🙂 .
    May you begin tomorrow with the same vim, vigor, and verve- I think I heard of that somewhere- which you most likely know the source! 🙂

  5. Happy birthday, Bryan! Having seen my mom slow down a lot physically and a little bit mentally in her 80’s, I understand your concern. But it sounds like healthwise you’re doing all you can now to delay, deny, and defend, which I suppose is all we can do.

  6. Rebecca says:

    Two comments from a fellow gen-x-er:

    First, welcome to 54, which has the distinction of being the last year in which you can click 45-54 as your age group; next year you have to start clicking 55+. I turn 55 in April (so I’m about a year older than you are) and am not looking forward to it. I also never had much of a vision of myself older, and frankly am only barely getting used to thinking of myself as middle age. I threw a little fit when I got the first AARP invite. That 55+ group to me seems like it actually is getting in to old, and I neither like it nor identify with it.

    Second, as a fellow early gen-x-er, I also have no vision of retirement. I have been reasonably certain since I was around 25 that social security was unlikely to make it through my retirement, and that anything I got from it was basically a bonus. I also can’t imagine stopping work; I might change it somewhat, but I was one of those people who was reasonably OK with changing the retirement age to 70, since I can’t imagine slowing down before that anyway.

    I feel as though the popular image of retirement is reflective of the silent generation (my parents) and the baby boomers, but not actually relevant to gen-x and beyond. We have the advantage of the medical advancements that lengthen our lives, but not the equitably growing economy of those earlier/mid-20th-century years, and most certainly not the decent retirement plans our parents had/have. While I long ago released any thoughts of retirement as it has previously been constructed, I suspect it is because the world that constructed it was gone by the time I was out of diapers.

    I, like you, mostly fear the loss of independence that comes with the gradual declines of age. I have been wearing reading glasses for a while, but officially can no longer read anything much without them. I worry about my hearing (misspent youth involving heavy metal bands, small clubs, and hanging out in front of the speakers). But more than anything else, I worry about alzheimer’s/dementia taking away the the one thing I am most proud of in my life – my intellectual accomplishments. I am terrified of the day when I can’t remember my husband but still know every word to every 80s pop tune or 70s arena rock band. I will go into the light screaming “Pour some sugar on me” and laugh when the lyrics scandalize the nurses….

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Rebecca, many thanks for the kind and deeply thoughtful comment.

      I hear you on this: “We have the advantage of the medical advancements that lengthen our lives, but not the equitably growing economy of those earlier/mid-20th-century years, and most certainly not the decent retirement plans our parents had/have.”

      And especially the mental fear. I dread that so much I left it out of the post – classic repression.

  7. Hi Bryan, Happy Birthday! May you have many more to come. I’m a few years younger (over 40 though) and I marvel that even though I don’t consider myself that old, so much has changed within my lifetime. Everything from black and white TVs to 8K color flat screen marvels that challenge the viewing experience of an actual movie theater. From going from computers that took up an entire desk to having something more powerful in the palm of your hand through the marvel of the cell phone. Not to mention starting my military career having to go through distance education by receiving books in the mail to now having live video interactions with instructors and other students. It is such an unprecedented time to be alive and see what an unbelievable new thing is just around the corner. I’m glad you are here with us to make sense of it all and to help identify future possibilities and ramifications.

    • Glen McGhee says:

      Hopefully distance education has improved since your military career, right?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Brent, thank you very much. I agree on the rapidly flowing waves of technological improvement. It is quite a time – and an even better time with friends like yourself.

  8. Michael Flood says:

    Bryan – Due to your topic on both age and the future, I thought you might find this an interesting discussion to comment on – https://www.edsurge.com/news/2021-02-09-is-it-still-teaching-when-the-professor-is-dead

    Both from your own lens (what happens to your lectures post-mortem) and as a general futurist thought for the growing library of online courses that may not require (or choose to provide) a “live instructor”. What does that mean for the HE business model on both the cost and revenue side? Should a course like that cost the same per credit hour? Are there royalties owed to the estate? You’ve probably thought more about this than I have!

    • Glen McGhee says:

      Astonishing! How does a school like this pass the faculty accreditation standard with a dead professor? Whom does the school list on the faculty roster that they submit during reaffirmation? wow ..

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      As someone who did and does Gothic stories, I appreciated that story very much.

      In a sense it’s not novel, since we already rely on the work of the dead in the form of articles, books, and other media. But what’s new is making the dead person more of a character, as it were: occupying the instructor’s place.

      Take this further with AI that imitates people and you get an eternal instructor.

  9. Glen McGhee says:

    Happy Birthday, Bryan!
    What time of day and at what location were you born?
    As a futurist, you are familiar with age-old practices of looking ahead, such as predictive astrology (i.e., solar returns, transits, eclipses, secondary progressions and primary directions).

    SOLAR RETURN (2021-2022)
    If your birthday is this week (February 7-13). There’s a helpful and powerful posse of planets in your sign in your new Solar Return, Aquarius. Loving Venus, clever Mercury, lucky Jupiter and ambitious Saturn all join your Sun in this chart of your new year. At the very least you have enough horsepower to accomplish great things in the months ahead. Suggest you get very clear on what you want and how to go about it. After that I bet you can succeed and make an important plan or dream come to reality, Aquarius. A New Moon in your sign [on Feb 10th, early in the morning, so] it’s a fabulous time to plant seeds and to initiate a new endeavor. You will never pass this way again. Reach for the brass ring, Aquarius. Times have changed.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Thanks, Glenn.

      Birth: NYC. Can’t remember the time – early morning, I think.

      “Suggest you get very clear on what you want and how to go about it.” On it!

  10. Happy 54! I am approaching 70 1/2. and like those under ten, half years are going to start being reasons for celebrations! Ten years ago when I turned 60, I noted that I had not yet taught my best course or written my best blog post. I still feel that way today … and I see even better things coming from you in the future too!

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