Kidding myself

I look in the mirror and see this greying, wrinkled, gonk-faced old man looking back at me

I turned 40 three weeks ago. Even as I write those words I still refuse to believe them. Me? 40? It doesn’t make sense. My calendar must be malfunctioning. I still feel like I’m 20… unless I am walking up some stairs. I still behave as if I am 20. In fact I behave more like I am 20 than I did when I was 20. So I can’t be 40. I am nothing like a 40 year old.

When my dad was 40 he had been married for 17 years, had three children, two of them teenagers. He had worked hard as a teacher all his adult life and recently been promoted to headmaster, wore a suit and tie every day and had proper grown up hobbies like listening to classical music, gardening, golf, DIY and making elderflower wine.

I, conversely, am single, I’ve never been married and am childless. I am sloshing around in the insecure (in both senses) world of stand up comedy. Most nights I go drinking with other people in their twenties (“other” because I am in my twenties, remember), most daytimes I play on my Nintendo Wii. I have the latest Arctic Monkeys CD, wear Converse trainers and recently acquired a skateboard – though tellingly I am too scared to be on it when it’s moving, but it’s good to casually hold, whilst walking down the road, nodding at other sk8erbois (it means skater boy, granddad). I have no practical skills whatsoever, paying other people to mend broken stuff and even do my cleaning.

If I stop and think about it my life I is pathetic, so generally I don’t stop and think about it. I’ve been in total denial. Which is why I buy trendy, figure hugging T-shirts. Because if I am going to deny the fact that I am old, I might as well deny the fact that I am fat as well.

Reassuringly I am not alone. Whilst many people in their 40s have families and responsibilities, an increasing minority still resemble teenagers. Scary, wrinkled, grey-haired teenagers, with some kind of terrifying premature ageing disease, but teenagers nonetheless. It’s enough of a phenomenon to have been given its own portmanteau label– Kidult. They’re adults, but they behave like kids. Which is at least better than being a kid that behaves like an adult. Though I was probably one of those too.
So what’s the cause of this new social trend? Is it just a collective mid-life crisis? Partly perhaps. The start of one’s fifth decade is an unsettling and upsetting land-mark.

In my latest Edinburgh Fringe show, aptly titled, “Oh Fuck, I’m 40!”, I discuss the perspective that being half way through your life suddenly gives you. It’s like getting to the top of a hill. For your first 39 years you’re struggling up the steep slopes, heading for the top as fast as possible, not even looking around you, desperate to see what’s on the other side. Finally you are at the summit and get a clear view both ahead and behind.

You look back and you see a lush, fecund valley, full of cavorting young people who wanted to be your friends, but ahead of you is a sheer cliff dropping into a stony, icy crevasse, littered with the bodies of the dead and dying. You want to turn round and do the climb again at a leisurely pace, but you are man-handled into a toboggan and sent whizzing down the slope. You might get thrown off at any point and die or get to the bottom and die. All that is certain is you are going to die, soon, along with all the other idiots who rushed to get over the hill, only to find that the hill was what it was all about.

So it is perhaps inevitable that, faced with this sudden realisation that we are over the hill, many of us make one last grasp at the green grass of youth: desperately trying to get fit in the gym, buying a sports-car, having an affair with your secretary. But this is usually just a temporary aberration and I don’t think qualifies you as a true Kidult. A mid-life crisis is something a grown-up has. We Kidults suffer from the Peter Pan syndrome – we never grow up in the first place. We remain children, because unlike our parents we are able to.

My parents’ generation’s lives were all pretty much mapped out: they had limited choices about what they could do professionally, needed to work to survive and got married early either because sex outside of wedlock was frowned upon, or because they had had sex out of wedlock and pregnancy had followed.

A proper job and the responsibility of a family will soon make a twenty year old grow up, whether they want to or not. But my generation had more choice. Whilst my dad almost automatically followed his dad into the teaching profession, I had career options. Perhaps foolishly, but fittingly for someone who wanted to remain puerile, I chose writing and performing comedy. Even had that been a viable profession in the 1960s, my dad could never had gone down it, a) because he is really not funny in spite of his best efforts and b) because he had a wife and young children to support, which requires money. I was in debt for the first decade of my career. If I’d had a family, I’d be teaching history in a comprehensive right about now. And I might well have been happier.

Effective contraception along with the subsequent shifting social attitude to sex outside of marriage means that my generation has much more of a choice about when and if they have kids. It means marriage and responsibility can be postponed indefinitely and we are able to focus entirely on ourselves. If that isn’t a big step to becoming a perpetual teenager I don’t know what is. Though in reality the Kidult will probably be focused on their career – working hard to play hard – they just have the kind of career that doesn’t slot into the traditional 9 to 5. And their spare time is all their own.

To be honest I still always assumed I would be in a serious relationship and have spawned progeny by the time I was 40 and part of me regrets that I haven’t settled down. But mainly I’m glad. I would never have stayed married to the women I thought I loved when I was 25. I was more of an idiot then than I am now. I don’t think anyone should get married til their 35. Imagine having to live your life by any other decision you made at 22!

Having said that, when I was about that age, I did make a pact with my friend Emma that if we were both single at 40 we would marry each other. It seemed so unlikely that it was a promise I made all too readily. Though as it turns out, both of us are still fancy-free, because Emma is a Kidult too. Certainly they are less prevalent than the male version there are female Kidults. They are rarer because to be a girl Kidult you really can’t have children yourself or even desperately want them. You can’t be a Kidult if you are a mum. I know women with grown up children who regress a bit when they are in their forties, but the bubble will be burst when your 20 year old child tells you to grow up.

But women who aren’t that bothered about children are also able to ensure they don’t have them and you will spot them if you look for them, dressed up in gear from Top Shop, looking pretty good as they have time and money to look after themselves, because they’re not looking after anyone else, chasing after young men (or women) at night clubs, and generally being pesky and having the time of their lives.
But I can’t marry Emma. Kidults can’t inter-marry, mainly because nothing would ever get done and what of the progeny of such an unholy union? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

I must admit I’ve had fun, but sometimes worry that I’ve left it too late. Too late to find someone, too late to have children. But there’s still a little time left on the toboggan ride to death. And if I spawn at the right moment I’ll be able to enjoy my kids while they are still cute and giving me unconditional love and then die just as they are approaching their teenage years, saving myself an awful lot of unpleasantness.

Writing this has made me wonder why I am a Kidult? Am I trying to compensate for some perceived privation in my childhood? If my parents had just bought me a Scalextric would none of this have happened? Am I making up for being so square during my teens and twenties? Or is it just as I originally posited, I do it because I can.

I am the first to admit that my life can be slightly depressing (whose isn’t?), but it’s hard to change. Doubly so for me, because I am a comedian. It’s my job to be childish. I have made a living portraying this foolish, immature, eternal teenager on stage. Now I look in the mirror and see this greying, wrinkled, gonk-faced old man looking back at me. If I carry on with the puerile schtick I am in danger of turning into the English Wee Jimmy Krankie. Though I would never marry my own brother – however desperate things got.

Whilst fairytales can come true, it can happen to you, if you’re young at heart, I think as with most things it is a question of balance. Being grown-up doesn’t mean we can’t occasionally be silly and have pointless fun, but if you only do the stupid stuff you’re missing out too. And I am going to change. Before I am 50. I wouldn’t want things to get embarrassing.

I guess what I am saying is that if you’re still young, slow down a bit and enjoy the climb and if you’re over the hill like me then there’s nothing wrong with trying to do a bit of the descent on your skateboard. Might as well have some fun! It’s all downhill from here.

Richard Herring began writing and performing comedy when he was 14. His career since Oxford has included a successful partnership with Stewart Lee and his hit one-man show Talking Cock
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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change