Those Darn Sunset Years, by Brian Clewly Johnson

Sometimes it’s hard to be with contemporaries. Perhaps, like me, you have several “nostalgia friendships.” I coined the phrase after someone I’ve known for a quarter-century, and whom I meet every year in Cape Town, remarked, “I hope you don’t feel you’re meeting me out of nostalgia.”

But I was. I realized that we usually talked about the way the world was in the early 1990s, when I wrote some broadcasting material for her. Since then, we’d been in conversational aspic.

The good outcome of this was that, once we recognized the redundancy of our friendship, we could reinvent it; we could speak about contemporary events and what the future held. Of course, we could equally have ended the association, but she is a woman of sharp intelligence, and I was reluctant to lose her view of the changing world.

I also find it hard to be with contemporaries who want to regale me about their physical frailties. In fact, with one trio of male pals, we make it totally verboten to discuss medical matters. With another health-obsessed individual — who in all other respects is a superb guy — I use one line of inquiry when we meet. The words run together, like this: “How-are-you-Bill-oh-I’m-sorry-to-hear-that.” This approach has the dual benefit of sounding interested and concerned while at the same time moving the conversation along at a fair clip. Before he can answer, I admire his shirt, his new car, or his garden — anything, in truth, where flattery will disguise my indifference to his health. Of course, should he announce some life-threatening condition, I might choose a more sympathetic response than “Oh, that old thing.”

Recently, I saw a chap I hadn’t seen for 64 years. We’d been classmates at preparatory school. Would I have recognized him if I hadn’t been forewarned? Absolutely not. Yet he was quick to say he would not have recognized me. 

Such remarks — when you feel the same as decades earlier — are sure to puncture your self-esteem. Especially when, after I’d asked after his condition, he replied, “Oh, pretty much like you, I suspect: racing to the grave.”

Well, I’ll stay out of your race, mate! At a time when we are reading about life expectancy of 90 and babies born today living for over a century, why this preoccupation with death? Why do so many folks of my generation make observations like “It’s that time for all of us” or “We’re all falling off our perches,” as one of them put it to me last week?

I call us “the Lucky Generation” because we missed fighting in wars and most of my pals in marketing and advertising were able to bluff their way through their careers and into retirement (many being richly rewarded) before the posse caught up with them. I remember one middle-aged boss in my ad agency saying, “I’m just doing this until I grow up.” How lucky were we! Now, so much of the business is about analytics and — you should excuse the expression — “capturing eyeballs and clicks.”

Now young men and women with good degrees struggle to find jobs. And when they do land somewhere, they can’t depend on a lifelong career with the organization. No, their first loyalty is — and should be — to what I call “Me Inc.” No one will care more about their careers than they do.

None of them, unlike us, will work for three or four decades; my generation was lucky to do that and to remain in gainful employment while raising families. Now, we’re told, robots may replace one-third of the working population within the next 25 years.

All of this should make me and my generation “glad to be aboveground” (as my aunt used to say when I phoned her) and doing what we do at this point of our lives. I suggest we should maintain our cheerfulness in the belief that life can go on — without for a second assuming we’re immortal. We should acknowledge that regular physical and mental activity, a few close positive friendships, and a good dose of genetic luck can animate and empower every day. 

So let’s cultivate a feeling that there’s something significant we want to do next before that darn sun sets. Every day, figure out what that thing is. And, as the man says, “Just do it.”


Brian Clewly Johnson is the author of "A Cape Town Boy: A Memoir of Growing Up, 1940 to 1959." He lives in Amagansett.