Saturday, 20 September 2008

Being 'Past It'

I have commented before about how having become 40 in the past year, I realised that all the things people said about this phase of your life were lies. Life does not 'begin' at 40, in fact so many things that had been open to you in previous years are now shut off. In the UK it becomes far harder to get a job when you pass 40 and you are more likely to be the one who is made redundant when there are cutbacks. Unlike in some cultures, experience is not valued in UK business, rather low salaries and malleability are those things that are the most rated.

As you are growing up you soon learn that the doors close behind you pretty quickly as you age. A school-aged child soon learns that they are now unable to go in the part of the park reserved for toddlers or sit around all day watching CBeebies and having a snooze in the afternoon. This is particularly the case in the UK where children now typically start school at 4 (compared to 5 when I began and 6 even now in Sweden and South Africa) and by the time they are 7 they are sitting their first exams. It is ironic that maturation of children is now accelerated in the UK by this country's (or certainly its government's) desperate need to monitor everything and yet, juvenalisation of adults continues.

We sort of freeze our children at 11-14 constantly sitting exams but never taking on any responsibility and being ferried around by their parents. Hence people in their 20s and 30s take on minimal responsibility for their health or their behaviour, so we have binge drinking and an unwillingness to recognise the consequences of your actions or make any effort to change them or society. This is a society in which our parents now take responsibility for us until they die.

Anyway, as we pass through life the doors are always closing behind us, but in exchange we get given new things. Okay, so now I have to go to school but I have a big group of friends and find out new things and go on trips and so on. So now school has finished and my life lacks structure and direction, but I can drink alcohol and take drugs and have sex without too much hassle and so on.

People are very aware of these stages, despite the fact that in the UK we have long lacked proper rites of passage which make it difficult to see these change. I think we should have a civil version of the Jewish Bar Mitzvah/Bat Mitzvah (the female equivalent) which comes around 13 and there is a recognition that the child is coming into adulthood and importantly, that they now put aside childish things. Such rhetoric is part of Christianity but the British Christian churches (despite the increase in popularity of their schools) seem to wash their hands even more of the role of maturing young people than they have in the past. Sorry, we are moving off into a whole new topic.

Back to the point, despite the British lack of rites of passage people are quite sharply aware of these steps, as I am here with being 40. When you become 30 you look around at/think back to how many of your contemporaries got married. I attended 6 weddings the year I turned 30. I felt it was like the party game musical chairs, i.e. when the music stops drop down on the nearest chair or you miss out. In many cases people marrying at that stage just seemed to have plumped for whoever was convenient, because otherwise they would miss the vital date. No-one saw me as a suitable candidate, perhaps because at that stage I was dating women either 2 years older than me or 7 years younger and I never anticipated being married myself even if they had been willing. In the former case she wanted a husband taller than her, rather than the same height (6'0") which I am; she did find him.

When you turn 40 you lose so much, as I outline in this posting, but there is nothing you are offered in exchange, there is nothing new that you are able to do or access. You have the same worries as you had at 35 but fewer opportunities to counter-balance them, no wonder we hit 'mid-life crisis'. The only thing to look forward in my life now is retirement. At a minimum that is 25 years away and more likely given population changes and economic needs, 30 years away. In addition, retirement is no longer the time when you can sit back and relax and enjoy hobbies.  Instead the financial restraints, the number of pension funds that have been raided by companies, means, actually, it is the time when you drop into poverty.

So, the next big milestone for me, like millions of other Britons, is going to be even worse than this one. My father, now 70 himself, once mooted why more pensioners do not take hard drugs. They have nothing to live for except dying when they can no longer afford to pay the fuel bills, so, he suggested, why now go out in a heroin-induced haze at 66? He is of the generation with good pensions and good health so is enjoying travel and exercising, reading, eating out, all those things that will be denied my generation as we fight each other to try to secure that job collecting up the shopping trolleys at Tescos so we can afford to have a single heater on in our homes.This is jumping forward in time a bit, let us come back to the situation for me now. In recent weeks other things have re-emphasised to me how I have passed a point of no return. Two colleagues in the wider business that I have tried contacting, have turned out to be on maternity leave, one with her first child, one with her second. Both of them are in their late twenties, but with lots of time to produce the three children which seems to be the standard number for middle class British families these days. I know, as a man, I can keep on producing children until I am in my 70s, but female contemporaries of mine are very unlikely to be able to do so. So, if I entered a long-term relationship now then there would be no children out of it.

As it is, for me, the age of relationships seems passed. This was re-emphasised by another colleague, a newcomer to the company, working as a PA. Initially she dressed in a low-key almost, dour way, but in the past week her wardrobe has changed to over-the-knee boots, shrugs and short dresses and her hairstyle from a simple ponytail to elaborate tresses. The mumbled conversations on the telephone in the office, with her back turned to the door, suggest that a relationship is afoot which has provoked her changed style. There is no way I can envisage, at my age, provoking such a reaction in a woman these days, let alone actually starting a new relationship. From men I know, a decade or so older than me, I am aware that even if you can get a woman to go out with you she is simply interesed in a platonic relationship and any steps towards anything physical, however mild, ends the relationship immediately.

Of course, the women out there of my age are unlikely to be particularly enthralling. Recently I stumbled across an online discussion about making Easter gardens, by a woman I had known at university. At that time I knew her, she had been incredibly sweet but also sexy. As I have recounted before, I completely bungled any relationship with her, something I had regretted up until now. However, reading the discussion about such a mundane issue on a website group for Christian mothers, I did think, well, even if we had hit it off, then no doubt this would be the kind of woman I would be married to now, and my life would be no better than it is for me anyway.

I suppose we all turn into our parents. For me that is a particularly unpleasant phenomenon and I shudder when I hear my father's expressions in things I say as I would loath to be ever as mean spirited and have such a violent temper as him. However, what I am saying here, is maybe we cannot escape that development. At best, we can only be incrementally different to our parents, despite how we may appear in our 20s. To discover the sweet and sexy woman has mutated into a Christian mother and an expert on Easter gardens reveals that it can even happen to those you do not expect it from.

The other thing is health. Compared to even just five years ago when I would spring from bed and cycle to work I am now in a situation in which getting up in the mornings is a long and painful process. My joints seem to hurt constantly and lethargy is also a constant companion. It does not matter how early I go to bed, I still wake exhausted. Even a light meal leaves me bloated and without appetite; nothing seems to have flavour. All my faculties seem to be crumbling away rapidly. I already take seven medicines each day and a varying number to counter their side effects. I still have 25 years of working life, if not more, as the working age is liable to rise in that time, what is it going to be like trying to get ready for work when I am 65 if it is already so tough now?

Life does seem incredibly tedious. By the time you reach 40 there is nothing unexpected left. You have a very jaded attitude to things. Nothing is stimulating, it is simply tedious. I suppose we know too well how expensive everything costs. Travel and holidays are too expensive to consider and anyway, you know all the things that are going to go wrong at the airport, with your luggage, with the hotel, with the food, with thieves, etc., etc. Exotic places seem simply to hold hazard, expense and trouble and prove to be more of a burden than if you simply sat at home. Even going to Belgium and to Bath, hardly exotic in anyone's view, proved to be a series of problems and expense. It is not that I am jaded from having seen and done too much, in fact the reverse.

The 1990s were probably my decade of opportunity, I was aged between 23-33. However, I earned £5408 (€6,814; US$9,626) per year at the start of the decade and £9500 (€12,065; US$16,910) at the end and, of course, that was with UK high prices on food, clothes and rent. I had three holidays in the 1990s: one week on a canal boat in the Midlands, one week in a house in France and two weeks cycling between cheap hotels in France, that was it. I did not experience any of the changes in Eastern Europe or go to India or anything. Of course if I had tried, no doubt I would have had all my belongings stolen or I would have been killed or caught some terrible disease. This sort of thing is going to be very common for people who have just left university this year and have thousands of pounds of debt.

Due to the difficulty of finding work, I was a little ahead of my time. British young people today are being constrained into the kind of dull life that I experienced even before they turn 40 and they will envy their European counterparts who at least have a little more ability to experience something different. My brother's wife is about to have a baby in Belgium and I can tell now that his/her life will be far more interesting than that of the 6-year old living in my house who will never go to university and will probably be shot dead in Iran or Syria as part of a British invasion force 12 years from now. The same applies to that boy's cousin just about to be born, though, given how repressive his parents already are, his grim life will start from the moment he sees daylight.

I know I am 'past it' as the popular British phrase says. I have got as far in my career as I will ever get. I have had all the relationships and all the travel that I will ever have. My income will decline from now on and my life will be grey and plagued by ill-health. Of course, anyone over 40 knows all this. However, this message is to anyone who is under 40, even if you are 35: get out there, spend and travel as much as you can, have as much sex and alcohol as you can get. There is no future. You have another forty or fifty years once you turn 40 and the greyness of those years will seek to erase any excitement that you might have had up to then, so you must build up an excellent resource of thrilling memories.

Do not believe the lie, life does not begin at 40, it begins its agonisingly slow descent to death. I suppose I am fortunate. I was told back in the 1980s that I had a life expectacy of 51. I have had premonitions, surprisingly precise ones, that I will die in a car fire in Spain in 2024 when I am 57. The premonitions suggest my father will die in 2020 at the age of 83 and my mother, 8 years later, at the age of 90. So they will have had a good 'innings' as us Britons describe it and I should only have to bear the next 11-17 years. Looking at it that way, however, it seems like ages. So, anyway, do not be like me, heed my warning, and live an interesting life before the greyness subsumes you.

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