On the morning of my 35th birthday, I woke up with a pulsing pain in my hip. “Come on,” I silently implored the scriptwriters of the universe, “this plot twist is a bit on the nose.” I had been fretting about my birthday for months, not helped by the friend who characterised the second half of the Biblical three-score-and-ten like this: “Welcome to the downslope.”
I didn’t feel entitled to much sympathy, however, as my partner has been hobbling round the house for weeks with an inflamed sciatic nerve painful enough to require a visit to A&E. And it was, as ever, a reminder of how disgustingly healthy I am the rest of the time. Getting older means I no longer take wellness for granted; just as I’m now happy every time my parents incompetently FaceTime me – “where have you GONE/which button did you press, Reg?” – and they seem to be physically OK and relatively sane.
Sometimes I play a game: if I could go back in time and live my twenties again, would I? That premise immediately demands qualifications: do I get to teleport all my experience back with me, or do I get reset as the naive chump I was back then? The former feels like a great chance to tell an enormous number of people to sod off; the latter feels like purgatory. (Those who forget the horror of Smirnoff Ice-fuelled house parties are condemned to repeat them. I mean, one time a guy pooed on our downstairs bathroom carpet and left without telling anyone. And then came back the next day to pick up his forgotten wallet. Being British, no one mentioned the poo.)
The truth is that getting older has enormous compensations. Yes, there are annoyances. There comes a point when you abandon all hope you’ll be asked for ID when purchasing alcohol. Enquiries, once purely theoretical, about whether you plan to have children take on a new, alarmist tone. There is so much more facial real estate to pluck. (My partner responded to his mid-thirties by growing the kind of rugged beard more usually found on Arctic explorers. Unfortunately, so did I.) But getting older is also a great liberation from the prison of other people’s expectations.
For women, this can be particularly freeing. No one expects you to be fashionable any more, so you can look at adverts, magazine editorials and Instagram pictures of influencers wearing ugly shoes and absurd hairstyles and think: just going to let this trend pass me by, thanks.
You are no longer in competition with the most attractive women in the world, those dewy-faced models who frolic across advertising hoardings to flog clothes no one their age could possibly afford to buy. Instead every reference to your appearance carries an implicit suffix: “… for my age”. (My skin looks OK, for my age. My neck looks OK, for my age.) There is little justice in this world, but the diligent moisturisers will inherit the earth. Plus, the power of this technique will only grow with the passing years: by 90, you will be mostly competing with people who are literally dead. It won’t be harder to have better skin.
Still not convinced? Two other things will help. The first is knowing that adult contentment is U-shaped, according to Jonathan Rausch, author of The Happiness Curve. After the first flush of youthful ambition wears off, he notes, many of us find ourselves feeling “an accumulated drizzle of disappointment which can become self-sustaining but is quite unlike clinical depression or anxiety”. Then, in our late forties and early fifties, we experience a kind of second adolescence. We accept our narrowed horizons and find contentment in what we have. (That said, the data shows we are most risk-taking when our age ends in a nine. The concept of a new decade still freaks us out.) If you’re feeling unfulfilled at 51, there might be a simple answer: turning 52.
I’ve also started an informal record of every artist and writer who achieved fame and success late in life. Piss off Picasso the child prodigy: Goya was 40 before he became court painter to the Spanish royal family. Philip Pullman published the first volume of His Dark Materials at 49. Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe at 58. Diana Athill won the Costa Book Award at 91.
This is vital, because our idea of what the shape of a life should be is wildly outdated. “On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all,” wrote Malcolm Gladwell in an essay in 2008. “Prodigies are easy. They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith.”
Not everyone can write something as groundbreaking as Robinson Crusoe or paint something as freakily unsettling as the Black Paintings, at any stage of life. But there’s still an important principle: our education system presumes to rule definitively on our abilities at 18, just as surely as the grammar school system did at 11.
Even as our careers get longer, and the idea of a “job for life” disappears, there is still little support for anyone who tries to change course in their mid-thirties or later. My grandfather moved from miner to civil servant because he went to night school. But this year, one of the 20th century’s great achievements, the Open University, revealed it would cut its courses by a third, reduce its research programme and offer dozens of staff voluntary redundancy. Labour has announced its intention to create a National Education Service, but its policies so far are still heavily concentrated on the under-25s. We have to do more.
As for my hip? It’s much better, thanks. I think I just slept funny. I’m not doing badly, for my age.
This article appears in the 03 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The fury of the Far Right