I was reminded recently that conventional wisdom has no inherent connection to reason or fact, or even to simple math. Over the span of a few days I ran across several individuals on social media who were talking about upcoming milestone birthdays, and as is often the case those impending dates were being viewed with a mixture of resignation and dread. In fact, such sentiments seem to be particularly common at decennial birthdays, when turning a single year older ushers in an entirely new decade of numerical ages, along with varying cultural cliches about what a given decennial portends. (Spoiler: it’s usually not good.)
To a person, however, in their otherwise independent commentary these aging individuals betrayed a common misconception, and I want to explain that mistake so future suffering can be, if not alleviated, at least dealt with at the appropriate time. By way of example we will assume you are 39 years old going on 40, and that you are not eager to experience this onrushing, irreversible, decennial transition. (Feel free to substitute 20, 30, 50 or any other decennial age, or for that matter any birthday at all. The explanation that follows applies to all ages.)
While the numerical value of your upcoming birthday is not in dispute, if you are 39 and wailing about turning 40 then you have almost certainly overlooked the fact that birthdays are anniversaries. While that association does seem to become obscured later in life, to understand its relevance to your angst all you have to do is note that after you were born your age was 0 even as you were living the first full year of your life. Meaning it was only after having lived an entire year that you turned 1, on what was the first anniversary of your birth.
Flash forward now to your 40th birthday — or any other age — and the same relationship holds between your numerical age and existence. And in the current example that means you turn 40 not at the beginning of your 40th year, but at the end — on what is in fact the first day of your 41st year of life. So if you really are genuinely dreading 40 as a decennial milestone, then you should rightly go to pieces the year before, because while your 39th birth-day is literally the 39th anniversary of your birth, it also happens to mark the first day of your 40th year of life.
Now, as you can probably imagine, not everyone is thrilled to learn that an upcoming event which fills them with trepidation has suddenly advanced three hundred and sixty-five days, but that shouldn’t stop you from explaining this common error to anyone who is morbidly concerned about a looming birthday. Sure, the news might initially come as a shock, but after a few tears the recipient can move on, both older and wiser. (Remember, you’re not just giving out information that someone may find unsettling, you’re also pointing out that they have been making a dumb mistake about birthdays for their entire lives.)
Suggested ice breaker: “Actually…ha ha…you don’t have to worry about turning [age] — you’re already [age]!” Then buy the first round of drinks before explaining in detail.
As previously noted, some solace can be taken from the fact that this error is commonplace. As to why so many people make such a basic mistake, I see two plausible explanations. First, no one remembers year 0, which is the critical offset in the string of birthdays that play out over a lifetime. Second, as you probably noticed this past week, when a new calendar year begins the entirety of that numerical year does in fact lie before us. January first of 2022 was the first day of the current year, and we still have more than three hundred and fifty days to go before we reach 2023.
Finally, whether you yourself have been traumatized by this revelation, or are looking forward to traumatizing someone else, let us close with a moment of cultural solace. When beloved Betty White passed away a few weeks ago, on December 31st, it was accurately reported that she fell just short of her 100th birthday, which would have taken place later this week, on the 13th of this month. For a variety of reasons — some commercial and crass, others nostalgic and sweet — there was a spasm of social disappointment that Ms. White had not dragged herself over the centennial finish line, but you now know that’s not quite accurate. While Betty White did not reach the 100th anniversary of her birth, when she passed away she was more than eleven months into her 100th year on Earth.
— Mark Barrett
What I’m hearing is that I ought to floss more often.
It’s common in Slavic culture to say on your 39th anniversary that you’ve completed 39 & now entering into the 40th.
If asked their age, the response would often be “completed 39”. Or, if they say only “39”, the response might be “complete?”
Thank you for this cosmopolitan note!
Other than what I happen to read or see on TV here in the United States, I have minimal experience with other cultures. But it obviously makes sense that this annual potential for — if not rite of — confusion, would be addressed elsewhere in some way.
What I continue to marvel at is that it is almost universally misunderstood in the U.S., perhaps also as an artifact of our obsession with youth culture.
As a just reward for being almost universally wrong on the subject, we Americans get to pretend we’re a year younger than we really are!
I have to say, I’ve never understood this “ugh I’m turning (big number)”. Maybe this is just awfully GenX of me, but to me it says: Hot damn! You made it! Who knew? I mean after all, there’s a reason why we’re all shrugging about this nuclear-war business — for us it seems mainly to be inspo for a dance party involving nuclear-war-themed pop hits, toss in some anti-apartheid party grooves if you want to get political, and some dark laffs about those adorably hopeful-looking bomb and CD shelters — and then of course we graduated into an economic freefall, and we’re trying not to get too excited, but it looks like there might even be some Social Security. So hell to the yes, big numbers. I’ve got mine on a t-shirt with the most exciting photo from the year I was born. And if I’m wrinkly and feel old, I’ve mother******* earned it, thank you. Just gotta hold it together for the kids, whose future makes my past look rosy and carefree, and who’re already feeling old and young simultaneously, knowing they’ll have to save themselves.
One good thing about the timing: if we went to college, and especially if we’re women, in general we’re far healthier and fitter at this age than our parents and grandparents were. Thank you, Title IX, and domo arigato, Mr. Morita.