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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Leader: The angry middle

As a sense of victimhood extends even to the middle classes, it makes Western democracies much more difficult to govern.

Two months after the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, it remains conventional wisdom that the referendum result was largely a revolt by the so-called left behind. Yet this is not the full picture. Many of the 52 per cent who voted Leave were relatively prosperous and well educated, yet still angry and determined to deliver a shock to the political system. We should ask ourselves why the English middle class, for so long presumed to be placid and risk-averse, was prepared to gamble on Brexit.

Populism has long appealed to those excluded from political systems, or from a share in prosperity. In recent years, however, its appeal has broadened to young graduates and those on above-average incomes who also feel that they have not benefited from globalisation. The sense of middle-class victimhood has become a major strand in Western politics.

In the United States, middle-class anger has powered support for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The former drew his activist base mostly from young liberals. And while Mr Trump’s success in the Republican primaries was often attributed to a working-class insurrection against “the elites”, exit poll data showed that the median yearly income of a Trump voter was $72,000, compared with a national average of $56,000. (For supporters of Hillary Clinton, the figure was roughly $61,000.) It is not the have-nots who have powered Mr Trump’s rise, but the have-a-bits.

In the UK, similar forces can be seen in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, research shows that three-quarters of Labour Party members are from the top social grades, known as ABC1. About 57 per cent have a degree.

Mr Sanders, Mr Trump and Mr Corbyn have very different policies, ideologies and strategies, but they are united by an ability to tap into middle-class dissatisfaction with the present order. Some of that anger flows from politicians’ failure to convey the ways in which society has improved in recent years, or to speak truthfully to electorates. In the UK and much of the West, there have been huge gains – life expectancy has risen, absolute poverty has decreased, teenage pregnancy has fallen to a record low, crime rates have fallen, and huge strides have been made in curbing gender, sexual and racial discrimination. Yet we hear too little of these successes.

Perhaps that is why so many who are doing comparatively well seem the most keen to upset the status quo. For instance, pensioners voted strongly to leave the EU and are the demographic from which Ukip attracts most support. Yet the over-65s are enjoying an era of unprecedented growth in their real incomes. Since 2010, the basic state pension has risen by over four times the increase in average earnings. 

Among young people, much of their anger is directed towards tuition fees and the iniquities of the housing market. Yet, by definition, tuition fees are paid only by those who go into higher education – and these people receive a “graduate bonus” for the rest of their lives. Half of school-leavers do not attend university and, in a globalised world, it is their wages that are most likely to be undercut by immigration.

However, we should not be complacent about the concerns of the “angry middle”. The resentment exploited by Donald Trump is the result of 40 years of stagnant median wages in the United States. In Japan and Germany, median wages have not increased in the past two decades. In the UK, meanwhile, the median income for those aged 31-59 is no greater than it was in 2007, and those aged 22-30 are 7 per cent worse off, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

To compound the problem, the wealthy keep getting wealthier. In 1980, American CEOs were paid 42 times the wage of the average worker. They are now paid 400 times as much. In the UK, the share of household income going to the top 1 per cent has more than doubled since 1979. Because of our hyperconnected, globalised media culture, we see more of the super-rich, fuelling feelings of resentment.

As a sense of victimhood extends even to the middle classes, it makes Western democracies much more difficult to govern, with voters oscillating between populists of the left and the right. The political centre is hollowing out. Rather than pander to the populists, we must do more to quell the politics of victimhood by addressing the root of this corrosive sense of grievance: entrenched inequality. 

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser