The world is run by middle-aged men, although sometimes, if you are a middle-aged man, it doesn’t feel like it. No other socio-demographic group is subject to such ridicule, contempt or sarcastic admonishment. There seems to be something intrinsically funny about everything that the middle-aged man does, whether it is planning barbecues in the comfort zone of his back garden or plotting to climb Everest. He is a bore or a charlatan; preparing early for death or clinging pointlessly to the life-affirming qualities of youth. A middle-aged man in love is absurd. His wish to drive a fast car is the sign of existential crisis. His jeans mean that he refuses to grow up. Listening to the anthems of his youth on a rackety turntable is nostalgic tristesse; listening to 50 Cent on a newly-acquired i-Pod means he is half a dollar short, at the very least, of proper maturity.
And yet it is the most fragile of human conditions, middle age. It demands the most delicate of balancing acts as we lean comfily on the experiences of a life half-lived and yet feel the need to look forward to novel challenges. We are worldly wise but yearn for fresh adventure. We will almost certainly have dealt with burdens and bereavements and have come out the other side, trying to invest emotionally in a future that we now know will turn out to be the usual battered compromise between aspiration and bracing reality. That requires a certain amount of irony and courage.
Men take the brunt of middle-age jokes and that’s proper and correct. Middle-aged men run the world and hegemony is blood-related to hubris and humiliation. The more powerful you are, the more amusing your plight if you suffer a setback. The coverage in the world’s media of President Clinton’s unfortunate liaison with a young intern was never based on its intrinsic importance; the story was just uproariously funny, each detail dripping with improbable bathos. And it conformed entirely with one of the most popular tropes of mockery of the middle-aged – the lustful man satiating inappropriate desires on a younger woman.
The travails of middle age constitute both a permanent human dilemma and one that is specific to different generations. Each era has its own mid-life anxiety attacks. If you hit middle age in the 1950s, you had the memory of the war and its aftermath weighing in your consciousness. That was no slight thing. It made you behave in a certain way: calm, thankful, dignified. But today’s middle-aged men are unencumbered by such a powerful and profound collective experience. We are, instead, the self-obsessed, cosseted generation. Baby-boomers – could any label sound more bombastic? As we moved through our teens and twenties and early thirties, we enjoyed the fruits of liberalised social mores, cultural revolution and low house prices. Sex, drugs, rock and roll, and feasible mortgages. There was no trade-off between hedonistic gratification of desire and sensible planning for the future. We had it all. So when we begin to feel “it” – all the joys that a life can bring – slip away, we become perturbed and confused.
How do we define our terms? Let’s not get too involved with age cut-offs. Today, anyone who was in any way shaped by the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s is middle-aged. You don’t need to count the years. It is a difference of sensibility. Today’s world is nothing like that one was. So you are alienated from it. A new generation, with entirely different values, is rising to power. You don’t quite understand it. You are middle-aged. Clinton’s discomfort and pedantic wriggling over his misdemeanours – “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”, just like “I did not inhale” – was the classic illustration of a middle-aged man caught between sensibilities and his efforts to prevaricate between them doomed to ridicule. With sex and drugs, there is no half-way house; not one that can be comfortably inhabited anyway.
The middle-aged man must learn to steer between the values that he imbibed as he grew up and the unfamiliar norms of a new order. He must decide whether they can be reconciled or whether some of his most fundamental beliefs need to be adapted or jettisoned entirely. He must learn, in a world that revels in surface and triviality, how to act his age, a much more difficult task than it sounds. We cannot rely on the way our fathers acted their age, for we are fundamentally different from them. Today, a 64-year-old rock star still sings that he cannot find any girlie action and we wryly appreciate the irony, not because he is no longer capable of it but because he arguably suffers from a surfeit of it. Yes, the Rolling Stones are still with us, most of them, and, frighteningly, they still serve up one of the best acts in town.
That is the world as it is: old is young, white is black. We need new rules on how to behave. There are helpful manuals for single girls, bored bachelors, serial monogamists, lesbians, swingers; nothing for us. There is pathos and sympathy for Bridget Jones; there is none for Bob Dylan’s archetype of middle-aged disorientation, Mr Jones (“something is happening, and you don’t know what it is”). So here is a handy guide on how to negotiate this existential thicket: tips for a vigorous and dignified mid-life. They deal with certain troublesome aspects of style, art and life: rules for a group of people who always thought they would never need them.
Can I wear jeans?
Yes. Jeans belong to us. Of course their origin predated us, but we made them what they were: symbols of a counter-culture that said that slack was cool, equality was hip and trousers were square. From Jackson Pollock dripping paint to the Allman Brothers band dripping sweat, jeans were the uniform of a cultural movement that poured its passion into its art. They represented integrity and soulfulness. That brand value, as we must learn to call it, is not to be lightly dismissed. We can happily leave the £200-a-pair abomination that calls itself designer jeans to the 25-year-olds. To honour the egalitarian symbolism of jeans, they should be chain-store cheap. To honour your probably less-than-perfect physique, they should be black or dark blue, and loose.
Should I be on Facebook?
No. If jeans belong to us, techno-networking belongs to them. Here is an overriding principle of the rules: each generation must be allowed to have its own thing. As a young person, you can ape the style of a previous generation – it is done all the time – but you cannot dictate to it. As a middle-aged person, you should recognise the tics and lifestyle of those who will succeed you but never succumb to their more extravagant trends. Broadly speaking, cultural revolution was our thing, technological revolution is theirs. This is no excuse, of course, for being computer-illiterate. You must ride the waves of society’s innovations but not in bright-red surfer shorts.
Should I consider cosmetic surgery?
Never. There are infinitesimally few reasons to persist in the discredited belief that men are more rational beings than women. But not paying thousands of pounds to look like a peeled trout is one of them. The same reasoning applies to living with hair loss. It is painful but be big about it, for goodness’ sake. The image of Silvio Berlusconi in his bandana should surely suffice for thoughts in any other direction.
Can I dance at parties?
No. Forget Mick Jagger. He is a one-off. Dancing to contemporary sounds is the courtship ritual of the west’s youth and they should be left to get on with it. “Harmless bopping” is for toddlers at birthday parties.
Should my views become more concrete as I get older?
No. There is a giveaway word in the question: do you want your thought processes to resemble an inert, grey, heavy lump? Nothing is more aging than the sclerosis of our attitudes on life. They represent the closing of the mind. Of course there are certitudes you will have acquired on your journey so far but they should be few in number. The modern world, bewilderingly fast in its tendency to change, requires a supple mental approach. The Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo coined a phrase for this: pensiero debole, or “weak thinking”. Think of the “soft hands” of a world-class cricketer or tennis player and apply it to your mind.
Ah, sport. Should I work out?
Of course. A no-brainer (literally). It should be as automatic as brushing your teeth. It makes medical sense and philosophically reconciles your engagement with the physical world with the workings of your mind. Competitive sport is fine too: but there are sub-rules here. You can only play a sport to the extent that it at least resembles how it should be played at the highest level. For example, you can play Sunday League football if you can run for 90 minutes, shoot, turn, head and tackle. Tennis is fine if you are capable of running in to follow your serve with a volley or can pick up a drop shot. Standing on a baseline waving an ineffectual racket in the air means it’s time to take up golf.
Is it OK to get drunk once in a while?
Certainly – but only with someone you love. Not with mates, business colleagues or on your own. You should be moderate in all things, including your moderation.
Should I keep up with the latest sounds?
This is a hard one. Young people get genuinely offended when reminded of the cruel fact that, musically, they well and truly missed the party. It must be hard to have your era defined by Duran Duran or Oasis or the Arctic Monkeys. One ought to avoid being too smug about this. Feign an interest. Don’t, whatever you do, make the mistake of introducing them to your playlist. They will discover it for themselves. The only interesting musical development of the past 25 years is hip-hop. Engage with it, it has moments of brilliance. But don’t play it in the car with the windows wound down.
Can I drive a sports car?
Absolutely. To drive fast is a pleasure. Speed was worshipped by the modernists who aesthetically shaped the last century. They adored the purity of the sensation, as well as those streamlines and gorgeous engines. Velocity is part of the way we live and, as such, must be embraced throughout one’s life. A temptation to succumb to pompous, ugly vehicles because they are “practical” should be avoided. Out-and-out sports cars should be black or anthracite, although there are certain Ferraris that only make sense in red; proceed with caution, in all senses.
Can I have an affair with a woman young enough to be my daughter?
Ah, no. I’m not going there. Eros famously observes no rules. If you haven’t learned that by now, you don’t deserve to call yourself a middle-aged man.
Should I have a will?
You may feel full of life, but now is the time to address mortal thoughts. Death, as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger said, “is in the widest sense a phenomenon of life”. You are not yet ready to embrace it, but it lurks, and must be addressed. A calm, business-like approach is recommended. Affairs should be in order. And eat lots of blueberries.
Should I worry about my salary/pension?
You are an FT reader. Of course you worry about your salary and your pension. But there are many parts of this newspaper that can tell you far more than I can about your financial standing. The question is: how much is enough? It is a tendency of middle age to sublimate existential anxiety about the present into obsessive scrutiny over a future which may or may not unravel as you expect. Get these clear in your mind. Don’t let a swelling bank account become a comfort blanket for mid-life. You must think about the years ahead but there is the bracing world of the here-and-now to deal with too. Don’t let it slip away. Perform occasional acts of wanton extravagance and of striking humility. Eat at the best restaurants in the world. Devote a hard month to charitable work. You are still on the lookout for transcendent moments that will remain with you for the rest of your life. You know now that material reward only takes you so far. Adjust your life accordingly. Be happy in your home. There are 1,001 extraordinary things to do before you die. One of them should not be buying a book called 1,001 Extraordinary Things to Do Before You Die. Show some imagination.
Should I wear slippers?
On no account. They are harmless in and of themselves but the symbolism is simply too powerful. Sometimes we have to admit defeat to a metaphor. Flip-flops in summer, thermal hiking socks in winter.
Should I go to church?
There is no more private matter than that of religious faith. Organised worship adds the dimension of solidarity to thoughts that could easily become solipsistic and can be of immense comfort. But be very sure of why you are there. Is it just out of routine and respectability? The next time you go, take five minutes to ask yourself some really tough questions. You may find it profoundly unsettling. That is a good sign. Keep up the good work. Accept this central, oxymoronic fact of life: life gets both easier and more difficult as you get older. Ask your God how and why this should be so. You may not get a reply.