Inside The Modern-Day Mid-Life Crisis

The catch-22 of being a 40-plus man

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I had few clear ambitions as a kid, but I knew precisely who I didn’t want to grow up to be: Terry Scott. I neither had nor bear any grudge against the avuncular and deceased actor, but Terry Medford, the character he played in the seemingly relentless sitcom Terry and June, unsettled me somehow.

He worked in an office; lived in perpetual low stakes terror of his boss, Sir Dennis; talked often of grown up, absent children; drove an Austin Princess and seemed forever to be trying to light a barbecue in the rain. All of which looked to me like a living hell.

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Across the road, where my friend’s folks had a video recorder and didn’t mind what you watched, we saw the horror films that the papers said would unhinge us and simply giggled. I wasn’t scared of them. I was scared of Terry. To me that character was the real undead. And I resolved to die rather than join him. I was maybe 12.

Thirty-odd years on, I appear to have succeeded. I have no kids, no car; it has been almost 15 years since I last worked in an office or under an abiding boss. There are aspects of this that I would gladly change (though the moral of this and all that follows is “shut up, and get to grips with what you’ve got”), but the grim truth is that Terry — like the T-1000 in Terminator 2 — can change shape just to fuck with you. 

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Terry changes into whatever form you have adopted to escape him, her or it. We all have a Terry, though mine was the actual Terry. If you get this far in life, then when you close your eyes, he will be waiting, by the damp and unlit barbecue of all our dreams, because Terry is middle age.

There’s a saying among dramatists that any idiot can write a first act, and it’s as true of life as it is of theatre since naturally the two realms are entwined. The writer, the character’s (and thus mankind’s) real hurdle — the proverbial second-act problem — is manifest off the page as a midlife crisis. If indeed you can call it a crisis. Seldom was a thing more poorly named.

For most of us, midlife leaks into our consciousness slowly, like a mould. A gradual aggregation of clues — strange visions of you leering back from digital photographs, second glances unreturned, desires no longer matched by ability — until, one day, here’s Terry!  Crisis? What crisis, you think. This isn’t a crisis — this is dull. The crisis though is the response.  

The sports car, the dreadful clothes (in the midst of life we are in denim), your kid’s unwanted guitar lessons, infidelity and perhaps even the urge to grab your younger, better-looking wife by the throat outside an expensive restaurant, these are the symptoms, not the cause. (I realise the subject of the prior reference was 72 at the time but for the purposes of this argument let’s say that 70 is the new 50 if you’ve got the money.)

The point is no amount of modern art or hordes of more mundane worldly goods will save us from the midlife problem unaddressed. We are going to die, and sooner rather than later now. How best to go about accommodating this? More importantly perhaps, how best to go about this without being a dick? 

There are internet forums devoted solely to the mutual support of those left coping in the jet wash of their partner’s mid-period melodramas. The advice to the victims seems over time to have reached a uniform consensus: there is nothing you can do. The process, like a fever, must run its course.

But why should it happen in the first place? If we set aside those who might, after years of social servitude rise up justly against the constraints of a world, family or workplace that has become unbearable to them and from which their exit might cause less harm than them remaining there, and instead focus on those whose “crisis” is of a more elective, subtle and widespread kind. The rest of us.

So why does it happen? It’s not like mortality is news to us, can the fact it’s somehow escalated from a comic strip we never quite saw the joke of to front page news we can’t ignore really be that much of a surprise? Well, maybe. What is life but a wilful delusion, a shuffle in the shadow of an inflexible doorman? A rude exit the price of admission to a building we had accidently rented, but then dreamed that we owned.

At the transition point, the moment when you realise that an unbeatable opponent now definitely knows your name, some level of flight from the frontlines is understandable. It is like losing control of a newspaper to a bitter rival. Your imagination is against you, the machinery of “what might be” recalibrated to produce images of “what might have been”. It is a lot to take in. And it hurts.

The most attractive and attainable branch for many of us adrift in the fog of vague exasperation and buried terror that passes for most adult discourse is some form of applied resentment. We are especially good at this in Britain: assessing the superficial circumstances of others as a means to ameliorate, and fail to address, the problems of our own. But the truth is by a certain age life has kicked all of us in the balls, sometimes while wearing proper shoes.

How we respond to that (and the extent to which we do or don’t rain down our discomfort on others and ourselves) becomes a huge part of who we are. In the end, it is our midlife moves that make or break us. But which way to turn?

Sulking is one option — and one as soothing as the sucked thumb in infancy. It matters not who we are, even the greatest of us love a tantrum and perhaps the greatest more than most since status saves some from consequences mere mortals might not dare to risk. This friction between age and action is adroitly framed by Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida. Achilles, the Greeks famed warrior sits sulking in his tent, enjoying a homosexual affair and generally failing to take the surrounding battle seriously at all (thus is the midlife indignant meltdown manifest). Naturally, the powers that be would rather he rejoined the fray and so Ulysses is dispatched to motivate him, and in so doing delivers some of the poignant lines on ageing ever wrangled to the page.

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Having warned Achilles that his prior heroism will soon be unremembered (“What? Are my deeds forgot?”) and now sensing he has his attention, Ulysses lets him have it: “Time,” he warns the idling hero, “is like a fashionable host/That shakes his parting guest by the hand/And with his arms outstretched, as he would fly/Grasps in the comer: welcome ever smiles/And farewell goes out sighing.”

In short: you can’t stop now, it will be over soon enough. Falling out of fashion need not mean a fall from grace. And so the ageing warrior springs back into the fight. Ulysses of course has a selfish agenda but as is so often the way in life, truth is revealed for feckless reasons.

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If the stakes and the style of that argument are too arcane for you, then perhaps this, from Surviving Survival, Laurence Gonzales’ more recent meditation on what makes us tick, sounds more familiar.  “As in a chess game, the strategy... is trivial at first. You can try whatever you like. But as the consequences of each act, each tactic, each move pile up and reverberate in the complex systems of memory, the commitment to a single course becomes deeper and deeper, until at some point you are unable to go back and try another strategy. This is your life.”

Struggling with this irrefutable truth — the dark sinews beneath the face of Terry, the cancer, if you will, behind the cardigan — and faced with the futilities and indignities of the sulk, some reach for another option. They go absolutely berserk.

You don’t need a full Rob Ford meltdown. This basic, futile realisation (we’re done for), I contend, is what’s driving most flawed middle-aged behaviour from freebasing half naked on the motorway to gripping your colleague by the wrist too tightly and insisting that they have another drink.

I can look at the newspaper website of my home town at any given moment and, once you discount the outright tragedies, poverty and the recklessness of youth, pretty much anything else of note is the fault of middle-aged men running out of moves.  Here’s what it’s saying right now: “Chief engineer (52) was drunk as ship prepared to leave docks,” “Suicide victim (66) suffered from depression,” “Pochettino (42) linked with Real Madrid.” It also has “Grandson threatened to hit own grandmother with spade for cash,” which might be the exception that proves the rule, but hey, it’s a hell of a town.

The urge to go outwardly berserk is an alternative and at times simply a prelude to subtler forms of self-destruction. Suicide is in overall decline except among men in their forties and fifties where it is rising. For all that one can trace the woes of the middle aged position back to antiquity, it would seem that this is a particularly testing time to be an ageing male.

There is a riot of social theory on this particular theme and even some perhaps justified counter rhetoric that suggests that middle-aged men have had the run of the place for far too long and some kind of recalibration is overdue. Whatever it might mean, the rise of the crisis is undeniable. You can see it in who we admire on television (or whatever you call it these days). 

Take Breaking Bad’s Walter White — short changed by mortality, economics and the poor decisions of his youth — he is the middle-aged everyman we can all can get behind. The key difference between TV’s previous top dog Tony Soprano and his chemical successor is that Tony was born to it, and he could kick your ass. Walter has simply misplayed a good hand and then been dealt a worse one — and by your mid-forties that’s pretty much everyone’s assessment of themselves some days.

There is no need to add to the vast weight of praise for the program but the subtle message to the ageing part of its fan base and part of the reason for it the phenomenal resonance of its central character is that it (Walter), could feasibly be you. As our bodies decline (along with industries that sustained traditional ideas of masculinity) what myth could be more potent than the idea of using ones wits to fulfil ancient patriarchal ideals of providing, persistence and control? 

Part of the problem of modern middle age must lie with the fact that in our moment of weakness, we are encouraged by commerce not to grow out of it, but rather to buy our way back into the past. And how much of that weakness is contrived, kindled and lit by the false comparisons and generic commercialised dreams of what it means to be an adult in the first place? Like no generation before us, our inner development has been arrested and the resulting hiatus monetised. Staying young, the Hoxton sidestep, the new infantilism is a global misdirect at the expense of all mankind.

Adolescence is no longer seen as something to be traversed, but instead a sacred space forever clung to and misremembered. You can see it any night of the week in TV’s persistent recycling and reappraising of the perceived pop cultural highlights of the seventies and eighties. You can see it in the arranged marriage of “serious” news and jaunty, juxtaposed human interest stories on allegedly serious newspaper websites, one of which is presently offering equal billing to “North and South Korea trade fire” and “How To Eat a Ploughman’s Lunch”. You can see it children’s clothing that reflects the musical taste of their parents.  Where is the incentive to “grow up?” What does the phrase even mean anymore?

Such is the dissonance this creates that young men have started going out of their way to look like old men (beards, glasses) or men from eras or sections of society where men did what men had to do (tattoos). You can dress like a 19th-century arctic deckhand but the world will still be burning, for just as we have grown older this would seem to be the midlife meltdown of capitalism too. As though glimpsing its bald patch in a mirror the prevailing economic system appears to be engaged in an act of frantic acquisition and denial, turning its back on most of the population and demanding a divorce, and it wants the house.
And yet surely, beyond money, methamphetamine, and beating organic mortality to the punch, there must be something positive we can do? Indeed there is, but it might not be what you think.

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Kids, career, religion: all potentially positive ways to pick up the slack left by vanished naivety, but all are potentially perilous, too.  A stern practitioner of existential psychotherapy might tell you that all three are simply “socially sanctioned immortality projects”. Ways to stave off the inevitable, deferment policies. Externalised escape vehicles from a deep internal truth that will only run away with you, the eternal Terry. No matter what we acquire, the questions persist, much like the proverbial bellboy who, on seeing George Best on his bed of money, Moet and fair maidens asked, “Where did it all go wrong?” I used to think that was a funny story. Not so much anymore.

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So what is the move then? How can we get from act two to act three without being an arsehole and buying a lot of silly shit, let alone blowing our brains out? Well, picture me as a fellow inmate here, I haven’t escaped, but I think they’re might be a gap in wire, some blind spots and perhaps even a tunnel.

Our first move might be to understand that the position is the predicament, by which I mean that the very act of having perspective creates its own vertigo. It does not follow that you will fall. If you stare at anything for long enough you can see a pattern, and so it goes with life. Beheld too long it can start to feel like a conspiracy of the self against the self. This led to that, then that and if only that had happened, and so on.
We love and assemble the anecdotes of alleged success in public (celebrity culture) and sketch in private frantic diagrams of our own failure.

Culprits emerge: him, her, me. And if we have a plan, however disastrous, then we can take action; step back into the off-licence, look for the old girlfriend’s number, dial another pizza, reach for the gun. But if we can accept that the view is necessarily so subjective as to be meaningless, then maybe (just maybe) we can sidestep the desire for drastic measures and the slow death alternatives that seem appealing when no quick fixes are forthcoming.

We might also consider reconnecting notions of age and dignity. Go to any major art gallery and you will see that elderly figures get equal billing to muscular paradigms of classical youth. And these are serious characters: saints, sages, men of wisdom, none of whom are boasting a chemically induced erection, cosmetic surgery, or sitting in cars listening to pop music and sending text messages. Think on.

Above all we must uncouple ourselves from the dreams others have beguiled us with for profit. As soon as you stop trying to be other people, then the ability to get a grip on your own shit increases dramatically. And if we know who we are, then maybe it will become obvious what we should do. And that ought to be a good thing ideally, a thing for other people, who are soon to outnumber us absolutely, billions to none.

The phrase carpe diem occurs a lot in coming-of-age dramas, but it really comes into its own in midlife, surely? Whether life throws you a sword or a shield or an under ripe banana, set about it seriously. What else is there to do? If you are afraid, let that fear be the spur to action. To be reconciled is no surrender. After decades of denial, I stand happily with Terry at the barbecue. We are one. I have embraced the rain. But I have brought a can of petrol, too.

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