Life satisfaction plummets between the ages of 45 and 59, according to a new survey. But there is a bright side: just learn to love the dad-dancing, plentiful body hair and low expectations
There’s a great scene in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe. No, really, there is. And it sums up eloquently the unexpected joys of being middle aged. Kathy Bates is waiting patiently in her car for the guy to reverse out of a parking space at the mall. Then two entitled young twerps in big hair and yucky, acidulous tops (it’s 1991 in the US) drive into the space in their vile VW Beetle convertible. “Excuse me. I was waiting for that space,” Bates complains. “Yeah? Tough,” says one. “Face it, lady, we’re younger and faster,” says the other.
Cut to Bates seething at the wheel. Then a smile crosses her face. She puts the car into drive, smacks into the VW. Reverses. Hits drive. Smack! Reverses. Hits drive. Smack! The twerps scream at her. “Are you crazy?” “Face it, girls,” says Bates triumphantly. “I’m older and I’ve got more insurance.”
This scene is worth bearing in mind in the wake of an Office for National Statistics (ONS) study this week disclosing that Britons aged 45 to 59 report the lowest levels of life satisfaction. Why? We struggle to juggle family and work commitments, apparently.
There’s more to it than that. The middle aged have got receding hairlines and advancing waistlines; we can’t get it up and we no longer know how to get down; we lose out parking-space-wise to sartorially challenged fluffheads, and life doesn’t make sense in a world in which David Bowie is no longer alive and pyjamas are OK on the school run. People like me (I’m 53) might as well just give up and die. Mightn’t we? On the contrary, here are 20 reasons to be cheerful when you’re middle-aged.
1 Ridicule, as Adam Ant argued, is nothing to be scared of
There’s a bloke who works in my library cafe. He wears a tricorn hat and a possibly silk frock coat. He must be about my age and he gives off a superb “nuts-to-whatever-you’re-thinking-about-me” vibe. Sir, I salute you. Remember when you were young and didn’t wear stuff that might attract peer-group disdain? When you’re middle-aged, those days are over. Score!
2 Teeth: the unbearable truth
Bad news! All your fillings are from the 70s and are disintegrating. Good news! Modern fillings don’t look like they’re made of old Ladas and you can afford to have the dental treatment!
3 Happy the tortoise, not the hare
Some may think that it’s sad that middle-aged duffers can’t run or walk as fast as they could. Not so. Think of it this way. Sure, we could shave half an hour off rail journey times by building HS2. But does anybody actually want to get to Birmingham faster? Or, once being in Birmingham, to leave any faster than normal? In both cases, obviously not. The same is more generally true: one of the pleasures of middle age is really appreciating the flowers and car crashes that younger people heedlessly race past.
4 You’re older, wiser and don’t get fooled by surveys any more
I don’t mean to suggest that all surveys giving age-related breakdowns of self-reported well being are assembled by self-justifying twentysomething numpties posing as sober objective scholars, but often it seems that way. Consider this possibility. The leading reason for those under 45 in the Measuring National Well-Being study reporting that they’re relatively happier is because they’re in denial about how unhappy they are. Not just because they’re more likely to live with their parents than I was and face a future living on a planet that me and my ancestors have despoiled, but also because soon they’ll be 45 and, by their own lights, more miserable than they claim to be now. Losers.
5 After middle age comes old age. Result!
Middle-aged people like me can look forward with glee to happy old age. According to the study, those aged 90 and over reported higher life satisfaction and happiness compared with people in their middle years. And that fact alone makes middle-aged people happier, thus confounding the survey’s dubious results. True, the greater happiness of those over 90 may be because they have forgotten what they were miserable about, but that doesn’t matter. And the greater happiness of those under 45 may be because they’re too thick to appreciate how utterly bleak, miserable and cold the universe is, but again that doesn’t matter. The point is the prospect of old age is another reason for the middle-aged to be cheerful. As Blackadder put it: “I want to be young and wild, and then I want to be middle-aged and rich, and then I want to be old and annoy people by pretending I’m deaf.” I can’t wait for that last bit.
6 You can pretend to be a technophobe
The other day, some lovely Danish tourists asked me to take their photo with their phone outside the British Museum. I did, then blew on it and shook it like a Polaroid picture. They walked off chuckling, no doubt, about the old fart who had lost the plot. Which, in a sense, I have. But, still, the joke was on them. Which cheered me up no end.
7 You know how to take your pleasures where you can get them
I was at yoga the other night with some very attractive women. “You have a lovely bottom,” said the French instructor. I looked round – in a room full of lithe youngsters, she was talking to me! I’ve still got it, I thought happily. “But,” she added, “would you point it away from my face?” Then I noticed everybody else in the room was doing their cat’s pose with their bottoms pointing the other way. I was 180 degrees to the room. Did I feel depressed at being the Corporal Jones in this scenario? No – I felt cheered by a French lady praising my bottom. Albeit ironically.
8 You’re more likely to own your own home
Thanks to the booming property market, the dearth of affordable housing, not to mention the spiritual and moral rottenness of late capitalism, young couples are finding it hard to get on the property ladder or anywhere to live that isn’t a skip on a landfill site. It’s a serious concern. Unlike them, though, you have benefited from the foregoing. That’s why you live in a house with a heated swimming pool and paddock, on a three and a half acre plot and behave to your under-butler with all the droit de seigneur of Hugh Bonneville, while your smart kids, for all their asymmetric fringes and further degrees, can’t afford the downpayment on a lockup in Motherwell, the poor darlings. It doesn’t get any better than feeling middle-aged schadenfreude for your own kids.
9 Age gives you a well-developed sense of irony
Which is very useful given one of the ramifications of point eight, namely that because your kids can’t afford to live elsewhere, they will live with you until you or they are dead. The same is true of your parents who, because of cutbacks to social care, can no longer live in an old people’s home. You’d be really miserable if you didn’t have that well-developed sense of irony hardened from years of exposure to the absurdities of modern life.
10 Hair: the unbearable truth
Bad news! I haven’t got much hair on my head. Good news! I’ve got loads growing from more interesting places! Indeed, the only reason I got into social media was to post pix of my nasal hair on Instagram. Don’t look sniffy: I’m trending right now. Albeit under a pseudonym.
11 Dad dancing, so wrong that it feels right
Picture the scene. You’re a dad. You’re dancing. Possibly at your daughter’s wedding. To a 25-minute cover version of Kraftwerk’s Das Model. You’re not so much a middle-aged man as the stock figure of absurdity in TV ads and sitcoms alike. But do we ever get to consider the perspective of the dancing dad? Oh no, because of institutionalised misandry and ageism. If we did, we’d know that dads in the 45-59 age range are very happy busting their venerable moves, particularly if it embarrasses everyone else. All together now: “Im Scheinwerferlicht ihr junges Lächeln strahlt/ Sie sieht gut aus, und Schönheit wird bezahlt”.
12 Confusion is the spice of middle-aged life
Recently my daughter introduced me to Uptown Funk by Bruno Mars. Superb. But I couldn’t help being surprised that the actor who was so excellent as Hitler in Downfall looked so young in the video. I was confusing him with Bruno Ganz. Idiot. But for a while the world seem so much more interesting.
13 Nappies and projectile vomiting are so last decade
You’re less likely to get pregnant than when you were younger. Which, given the expense of kids, the pain of childbirth and the bleak, uncertain future faced by any children one brings into this benighted world, has got to be a good thing. Unless your kids have kids and expect you to look after them while they go out to work which, if you think about it, would be quite selfish on their part.
14 You can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same
Aston Villa are going to be relegated. Boo hoo. If I was seven, I’d be inconsolable. But I’m not. In the school playground, small boys, smug Arsenal and Spurs fans mostly, gather round me frequently to offer faux condolences for that looming disaster. No worries, I say. I started supporting Villa in the late 1970s when they were in the old Third Division and within five years they had won the European Cup, something your teams never have and never will do. They have no idea what I’m talking about. Nor do they realise that, as the philosopher Spinoza put it: Sub specie aeternitatis, Villa’s relegation’s no big deal.
15 Your expectations are, like interest rates, sensibly low
Didn’t win Wimbledon this year? Didn’t even restring your racquet? Don’t worry – nobody thinks you can play tennis when you’re over 50 without having a cardiac arrest. So Wembley stadium remained un-sold out for your incredible debut tour? It’s OK. You don’t have to be a young gun guitar hero. And even better - if you were over 50 and playing huge stadium shows, people would start adding up the ages of the people in your band, coming up with three figures and giggling (they did it with the Rolling Stones only the other day). So you’re avoiding that embarrassment, too!
16 Your sexual peak is still to come
It’s one of society’s great myths that men’s sexual peak is in their teens and women’s in the 30s. Take me, for example. What with increased life expectancy, all that muesli and the herbal tea I’ve been drinking, I have been able to draw a graph that suggests my sexual peak will be on my 59th birthday. It promises to be quite a day. Well, let’s not go crazy. Quite a 15 minutes.
17 You can express yourself eloquently – with puppets
One day, a friend of the journalist Lynne Truss asked a store assistant how much an unpriced article cost. “What do you think I am – psychic?” said the (probably twentysomething) assistant. Truss became so irked at this sort of rudeness typical of modern life that she decided to wear a glove puppet on shopping expeditions to vent her spleen. “What’s that, Sooty? Thank you very much? What’s that, Sooty? Goodbye?” Her book was called Talk to the Hand, but it could equally have been called Talk to the Glove Puppet. It remains a bible for the cantankerous middle-aged sociopath.
18 Eyesight: the unacceptable truth
Bad news! I keep getting on the wrong bus when I forget to wear my glasses. Good news! I get to go to more interesting destinations than I used to. I haven’t been to Crouch End for ages!
19 You’ve got so much to look forward to
If you are unhappy in middle age, there is some good news: you won’t be for long. According to Professor Andrew Steptoe, director of the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care at University College London: “If, as we suspect, happiness is beneficial for health, it follows that people who are less happy may not survive to such an old age. The oldest age categories will therefore include a greater proportion of happier people.” So if you do survive into old age, you may well be happier because the miserable gits who used to make you unhappy during your middle years will have popped off. That’s got to cheer you up, hasn’t it?
20 Life is, thankfully, short
When you were young, there used to be a seemingly endless supply of time. Now, at your back, you hear time’s winged chariot. You will never learn Mandarin; run a marathon; abseil down the Shard; bench your body weight; describe successfully the difference between Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity; pass grade seven oboe; or be Madonna’s toy boy. Don’t pretend that’s not a relief.
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