March 9, 2012
A new study claiming that we’re at the peak of our powers in mid-life confirms what many already feel.
When does middle age officially begin? Being just a few months away from my 47th birthday, I am ideally placed to give you the definitive answer: it starts when you’re about 10 years older than I am now. Or possibly 15 years.
What I can say for certain is that whatever “middle-aged” is, I’m definitely not it yet. Why, just look at my Adidas Gazelles! Look at my not-grey hair! Look how much I’m liking (as they say) the Lana Del Rey album! I’m still young, I tell you. Young! Young young young young young!
That said, I’ve a suspicion I’m not the only middle-aged man who suffers delusions in this direction. In the old days, maturity was something young men aspired to acquire as quickly as possible. (Think of how prematurely old and fogeyish teenagers strove to look in Oxford and Cambridge group portraits – or even school photographs – taken in the Twenties and Thirties). Today, it’s a curse to be warded off indefinitely with yoga classes, skin-care regimes, even Botox or surgery. Plus jeans, of course. And T-shirts. And the new Lana Del Rey album: did I mention how much we’re all liking that?
Perhaps, though, we’re wasting our energies in trying to stave off the inevitable. At least, if we’re to believe the rather pleasing thesis advanced in a new book, Middle Age: A Natural History, by Cambridge lecturer David Bainbridge. According to Bainbridge, far from being has-beens on the slow downhill trundle to oblivion, we middle-aged farts in fact represent the human species at the very peak of its powers.
We represent, argues Bainbridge – he’s talking about men here, though much of what he says applies to women too – “the most impressive living things yet produced by natural selection”. No, better than that, we are “an elite caste of ‘super-providers’”; we’re “the main route by which culture is transferred”. We also “tend to be better at developing long-term plans, selecting relevant material from a mass of information, planning [our] time and co-ordinating the efforts of others – a constellation of skills that we might call wisdom”.
Bainbridge himself is 42, so perhaps he would say this. But he does have lots of evidence to support it: the fact that though our eyesight may decline markedly with middle age, our cognitive faculties don’t; the fact that, as a species, we’re unusually slow to acquire the full panoply of survival skills (meaning that the middle-aged play a vital role as the repository and transmitter of knowledge); the fact that – in common with killer whales, oddly enough – we follow the unusual practice of “self-sterilising” by sticking with our post-menopausal female partners, rather than continuing to try to mate with all and sundry (so much for the mid-life crisis, which Bainbridge claims is a myth).
And now I think about it – drawing, of course, on that vast repository of knowledge I have acquired in my nearly five decades of existence – I realise that Bainbridge is dead right. Sure, there are things I regret about my middle-aged status – nose hair would be one; ear hair would be another; the wiry tendrils extending from my Denis Healey eyebrows would be a third. But for all its drawbacks (did I mention the fact that all pretty girls under 35 – all ugly girls too, for that matter – look straight through you, as if you’re completely invisible?), mid middle-age does strike me as a pretty superior place to be.
You notice this – and I believe I speak for all my age group here – in the way we look at younger men. It’s not quite contemptuously, that’s too strong, but it’s definitely not enviously. What we feel, I think, is something more akin to pity. We look at all that energy they’re expending, all that time and money they’re squandering, all that physical damage they’re self-inflicting in their frenetic efforts either to impress or get wasted, and we shake our heads in wearied amusement and say to ourselves: “Well, thank God we’ve put most of that nonsense behind us.”
I say “most of that nonsense” because, of course, there are exceptions. For example, I’ve heard of several 50th birthday parties where, once the “grown-ups” have all toddled home, out come the bags of illicit powders and pills to go with the top-class dance DJ who has been recruited for the evening, pumping out tunes on the kind of state-of-the-art, über-bassy sound system you could never hope to afford to hire in your twenties. That’s one of the great advantages of middle age: we may indulge ourselves more rarely, but when we do, we do it properly.
David Cameron is a fairly classic representative of the rave generation middle-ager. Though obviously he doesn’t dabble with proscribed chemicals, he has taken care – in defiance of his 45 reverend years – to keep himself fit (viz those slightly unflattering puffed-out photos with personal trainer Matt Roberts) and healthy (giving up, or trying to give up, cigarettes) and down with the kids (well, he professes to like the Smiths: does that count?).
This marks him as clearly distinct from prime ministers of earlier generations. Can you imagine Winston Churchill entertaining even for the briefest of moments the idea of giving up his cigars or taking up jogging in order to prolong his aura of youth?
Some things, however, haven’t changed at all about being middle-aged. One of them is the understanding you acquire that, to quote PJ O’Rourke, “age and guile beat youth, innocence and a bad haircut”. Sure, it’s a survival strategy born of necessity: past 35 you can’t run as fast, see as far, or track down and kill nearly so many woolly mammoths. But it also happens to be a survival strategy that wins. As Bainbridge notes: “In offices, on construction sites and on sports pitches around the world we see middle-aged people advising and guiding younger adults and sometimes even ordering them about.”
And there’s a good reason for this: it’s because we’re better equipped to deal with the real world. Call it wisdom, call it experience, but we have a finer understanding of which methods work (and which ones are a waste of space), and a clearer appreciation of the end goals and the bigger picture.
We’re the ones with sufficient perspective to appreciate, say, that if everyone were to pull a sickie just because they’ve got a hangover, the company would cease to function and everyone would lose their job. It’s not that we want to go home any less. (In all likelihood we want to go home more, because another thing you appreciate when you hit middle age is that your family is the greatest of all life’s pleasures.) It’s just that we’ve come to understand – as, oddly, so few of us do when we’re younger – that businesses aren’t magic money trees whose purpose it is to pay us all because we’re special and we deserve it. Without our maturity and sense of responsibility, in other words, everything would fall apart and we’d all be stuffed.
I remember, when I was a child, calculating how old I’d be in the year 2000, realising that I would be 35, and thinking that in that case I might just as well be dead. God knows what I would have thought of 47. But now I am (almost) that age, I don’t feel that way at all. I still have more than enough energy and adventurousness to do manly, exciting things like swimming in freezing Welsh rivers – but now I not only have a wife and children to enjoy it with me, but the sense of mortality which enables me to appreciate, more than I ever did when I was young, exactly what makes this life so magical and precious.
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16 thoughts on “I’m loving being middle aged”
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