By Mark Barrowcliffe
There was a time when people had the decency to wait until they were approaching 50 to have a mid-life crisis. Now it seems many thirtysomethings find themselves succumbing to existential navel-gazing.
‘What did I do with my life?’ these relative whippersnappers ask. ‘Am I happy? Did I choose the right job? Surely I’d have been better off saving whales in the Arctic than slaving away behind a desk?’
According to a study by relationship counsellors Relate, nearly a quarter of people aged 35 to 44 feel lonely and a similar number complain that ‘bad relationships’ have left them feeling depressed.
Stop whining: Mark Barrowcliffe argues that if you are feeling down then you need to get out and do something about it
Well, welcome to blinking reality, the lot of you!
I have no problem with people feeling a bit down — crikey, you only have to walk down the road to find enough reasons to fall into a depressive coma — but I do have a problem with whining about it.
Clinical depression aside (because that is a serious mental illness), if you’re feeling down and miserable, why not either do something about it or simply accept it as part of being human?
According to Relate, the main complaint of middle-aged people is that they don’t get enough time with their families. You don’t say. This is what most of us call ‘normal life’ — you have to concentrate on those areas of life that are important to you. If you opt for a demanding career, then sadly family life will inevitably suffer.
Having attained the grand old age of 46, I feel I can say with authority that those younger generations have had it too easy. They’ve grown up in an age of prosperity, had every toy and gadget, and the job market’s been buoyant. Yet, ironically, this is the source of their angst.
Traditionally your mid-life crisis involved buying all the things you couldn’t afford as a youth. But the 35-year-olds today can’t escape that cliched existential void by buying an open-topped sports car, for example, because they probably already have one and, frankly, they’re bored of it.
'The best way to fulfil your ambitions is to reduce them. Give up on the idea of happiness — and you just might find contentment'
What, then? Yoga? Nope. Been there, done that, got the slipped discs.
In fact, the answer’s wonderfully simple: the best way to fulfil your ambitions is to reduce them. Give up on the idea of happiness — and you just might find contentment.
Our grandparents’ generation never expected too much out of life and, paradoxically, were happier for it. It never occurred to my grandad that he would enjoy work. He hated it from the day he walked through the factory gates at 14 to when he left at 65.
Did that make him miserable? No, because he expected to put in a certain amount of toil, and he found pleasure in other areas of his life — playing the violin, going to the pub, watching the racing on the telly.
My grandmother, meanwhile, never looked for any fulfilment outside her children. To my eyes, much of her life was drudgery — domestic housework and her job as a cleaner — but she was happy, because she was working to support her family and getting to spend a lot of time with them.
Half of this problem is, of course, the ‘me’ generation, who value their own happiness over anything else at all. It’s not enough to put in the hours in a dull job knowing that you’re earning enough crust to afford the dinner on the table for your kids. No, they want to feel ‘fulfilled’ by their career.
People generally complain that they’re overburdened by responsibilities, forgetting that they chose to have those responsibilities. No one makes you work like a dog in order to live in a nice house, put your kids in nice schools, drive a smart car and go on exotic foreign holidays. It’s up to you.
If it’s making you miserable, then move somewhere smaller, stick the kids in a comp, trade in the Range Rover for an old banger and choose Great Yarmouth over the Caribbean. If you can’t live without all those personal luxuries, then accept that you need to pay for them — and knuckle down.
Personally, my life became much happier when I gained more responsibilities. I didn’t get married until I was 40 or have kids until I was 42. Before that I was well-off and carefree, but pretty aimless. Now I’m skint, hassled to death — and happy.
The fact I’m not the centre of my own life any more — that what I want doesn’t really matter compared with the needs of the kids — is a relief. The day-to-day routine is so busy, so overwhelming, that I’m just pleased to be able to fulfil any of my responsibilities half-adequately. Never mind ‘me time’. I had that for 42 years and did stuff-all with it.
Of course, middle age brings other, more spiritual questions. It’s the first time that you start to worry about mortality and your legacy.
It’s then that some people realise they went down the wrong track years ago, pursued the wrong career, married the wrong person, didn’t see enough of the kids. In that case, people have two courses of action available.
Invent a time machine and go back and do it all right this time — or, slightly more practically, just move on. These people should concentrate on what they’re going to do in the future, not the mess they made of the past.
Whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up by asking: ‘What have I achieved in my life?’ The answer is almost certainly not much, in the grand scheme of things. But there’s nothing wrong with that. History only really remembers about ten people in each generation — and half of them are total swines.
What’s more, instead of trying to recapture your ‘lost youth’ by buying a sports car, why not do something really radical — embrace getting old.
You might want something that gives you the same thrill you got from skateboarding when you were 15. Well, it ain’t gonna happen. Bowls, dominoes, whist, mulching the garden — they’re the way forward.
Our parents and grandparents knew this. Life is about companionship and love, not proving how wild you are by hurling your increasingly brittle bones down a mountain.
Of course, it’s hard to change your thinking in a society that’s obsessed by youth. Age used to be cause for respect — and it still is in many parts of the world. Every other interest group in society says: ‘I am what I am, respect me for it.’
Only the middle-aged and old seem ashamed of it, or to try to hide it. So say it loud: ‘I’m grey and I’m proud.’
In the end, my advice to the pampered 35 to 44-year-olds is: next time you feel miserable, get out a copy of the old sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.
Watch that and remember the words of Windsor Davies’s Sergeant Major. Look in the mirror and say slowly to yourself: ‘Oh dear, how sad, never mind.’ Then do something useful — like going down the garden centre to buy some bags of mulch.