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29 March 2016

All 18-year-olds are brilliant these days. Men in their thirties remain as useless as ever

The young are much better than I was at their age; more socially attuned, more quietly confident, and with a wider vocabulary. How they do this without reading books is a mystery to me.

By Nicholas Lezard

A visit from the daughter and her boyfriend. The latter seems to have acquired the notion that every time he comes round he should present me with a bottle of whisky. I am in no hurry to disabuse him. I tell him that he is under no such obligation but he is an intelligent young man and should be able to detect my deep insincerity, and that my favour hangs by a thread.

Well, it doesn’t really. He is smart and likeable, even without the whisky. I’ve noticed this about the young – that is, people in their late teens and early twenties. They’re great: much better than I was at their age; more socially attuned, more quietly confident, and with a wider vocabulary. How they do this without reading books is a mystery to me. “We watch an awful lot of television,” my daughter explains, but I’m not wholly convinced. There’s something about the star they were born under. My 18-year-old son rang me from his place of work in the Alps just for a chat and when we hung up I noticed that we’d been talking for an hour and ten minutes. I don’t think I’ve talked to my parents for that long at a single stretch. Even ——, —— and —— are great, which is amazing, considering their parents are the absolute dregs, especially their father. To cap it all, I find that my wife’s sister’s son’s girlfriend is a big fan of this column. Waves.

Men in their thirties, on the other hand, are nothing like as accomplished or discriminating. They do not cook. They wear those pointy shoes and have poor taste in art, cinema and wristwatches. They vote Liberal Democrat, whine all the time and have never read a book. Forgive me for painting with a broad brush if you are a man in his thirties who bucks these trends, but sometimes the columnist has to generalise in order to make a point. Women in their thirties, on the other hand, are fed up with men in their thirties, for precisely these reasons, and I have to say that when I was in my late forties I took some advantage of this situation.

Now that I am approaching my mid-fifties, taking such advantage would be unseemly. It would also be impossible. I find that increasingly, young people are getting into relationships by a thing on their phones called Tinder. As I understand it, and I am open to correction on this, Tinder involves putting a flattering photo of yourself out there and inviting the bored, the curious and the lonely to “hook up”, ie, have sex. I can understand the impulse behind this and can see the urgency of the need to alleviate the ennui of modern urban life. “Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves”; would Baudelaire have written that line if he’d been able to swipe right and pick out someone from the dreaming antheap for a quick shag? Actually, I think he would, and he would have written it with even more feeling, if that were possible.

So now, two of the most pressing problems of urban existence – copping off and finding a taxi – have been solved by apps for your smartphone. This is instant gratification par excellence: you can get laid, and then get the taxi out of there, within two minutes of asking.

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Well, you can if you have a smartphone. I do not. I have a dumbphone. I also suspect I am too old for the Tinder thing, if not the Uber thing. Not having the latter on my dumbphone doesn’t bother me, as I find that my needs are met adequately by public transport and my legs (or mostly, to be honest, my arse, as I never go anywhere any longer); not having the former, or not being eligible for it on grounds of age, bothers me greatly, for it brings my solitude and ancientness, destinies that would now appear to be bound up with each other to the point of indistinguishability, into sharper relief. The alarming thing is that I now know women who have used Tinder as the opening shot in a “proper relationship” (one that lasts more than a couple of months). This strikes me as wrong, and at a very fundamental level. It seems to be a betrayal of everything Tinder stands for, or rather fails to stand for.

At least my daughter met her beau the old-fashioned way, through friends, in real life. She seems to have some grasp of the timeless verities, and shows me a paper written by a cool new philosopher, Kieran Setiya, who seems to be full of the right stuff. He quotes a line from A Confession by Tolstoy that brings me up short: “. . . there was no life in me because I had no desires whose gratification I would have deemed it reasonable to fulfil”. The paper’s title: The Midlife Crisis

This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue