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
Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.