Fortysomething: a midterm report

Image of Simon Kuper

All I want for my birthday next week is an extra croissant for breakfast, and the half an hour in a café to reflect that is so rare in midlife. Though the phrase “middle aged” has become taboo, the early forties are now the actuarial halfway point for the professional classes. This calls for a midterm report on my generation.

Obviously, we’re run off our feet. Sociologists call this stage the “rush hour of life”, when career and family life are both at their busiest just as physical endurance slumps. That’s partly why I’ll be celebrating alone with my croissant. In any case, friends have scattered across the globe and live as hostages to their children and spouses.

Frantic busyness has its upsides. Nowhere in my peer group have I witnessed a textbook midlife crisis. Nobody has the time. Anyway, my “Generation X” was never much given to fantasy. Our teenage soundtrack featured gloom merchants like The Smiths, we came of political age after all utopias had collapsed, and then graduated into recession. The dream among my peers isn’t a Ferrari and a 22-year-old model. My last contemporary who still went to nightclubs – and got stared at as a freak – recently stopped. I don’t know anyone who believes youth can be recaptured in some exhausting spree.

Rather, the dream now is of a cafè latte alone: a small victory in the struggle to preserve fragments of what Orwell called “ownlife” amid the onslaught of mortgage, toddlers, in-laws and physical decline.

Physical decline is probably harder for women at this age. Someone once said that a woman between about 17 and 40 has a terrible power over men that she’s often barely aware of. It may not be exactly the kind of power she wants, but it’s power nonetheless, and after 40 it’s often waning, rather like American geopolitical dominance. A female friend told me mournfully that she is having to recalibrate her dealings with all the men who have stopped fancying her. Women this age often have the additional humiliation of trying to batter their way back into work after childbearing. Average earnings for female American college graduates peak aged 39, says the compensation research firm Payscale.

Male graduates hit peak pay at 48. Broadly speaking, men in their forties have it easier. Clearly we too are in abject physical decline, but many of us never flowered to start with, and rising professional status sometimes compensates. Indeed, the American writer Scott Turow writes somewhere that there’s an evolutionary reason why men in middle age become fat and bald. Otherwise, with their higher incomes and hard-won knowledge of how to talk to women (the secret: you don’t talk; you listen) they wouldn’t give younger men a chance to procreate.

Sometimes the rise in status is staggering. I’ve seen friends make tens of millions, or become bestselling novelists. (I know success isn’t everything, but it does seem to make people happier.) However, most fates in my generation are more mundane than I’d imagined at 18. People fell into careers by accident, and got trapped there by nappies and mortgages. I’m constantly struck by the almost random distribution of mediocrity and success among my peers. Often the cleverest people got nowhere.

Then there’s a third, growing category of peers: the dead or dying. Death – never previously considered as a possibility for oneself – starts intruding after about 40. Given my generation’s modest ambitions, one’s own death features chiefly as a management problem. Above all: how old do your kids have to be before you can hand in your dinner-pail without messing up their lives?

If death is skirted, then the road ahead looks dauntingly long. My cohort needs to work another quarter-century – longer than any previous generation. That is, if we’re kept on. Men are often thrown off the cliff after 50 when their employers cut budgets. Those men who hang on to their status into their fifties then hit another hazard: the so-called “male menopause”, or years of wildly inflated self-esteem. Often mediocrities until this point, these men become head of department because nobody else is left, and then start to regard themselves as akin to the god Zeus. They disdain younger people. This is foolish because 24-year-olds – fresh out of education – usually have superior, cutting-edge knowledge.

I’m waiting for contemporaries to enter another phase: madness and alcoholism. My mother thought this typically happened after 40, when people realised that their disappointing lives wouldn’t improve. As with everything else, the novelist Anthony Powell phrased the notion best. The fortyish narrator of A Dance to the Music of Time, visiting his old college, reflects on “the relatively high proportion of persons known pretty well at an earlier stage of life … now dead, gone off their rocker, withdrawn into states of existence they – or I – had no wish to share.”

That’s a joy still to come, and one to which Generation X may prove immune. For now I’ll savour the extra croissant.

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