June 4, 2021

I know the moment when I became middle-aged, because somebody told me. I walked out on stage to perform a comedy routine, and someone in the audience tweeted — young people don’t heckle comedians any more; they live-tweet their feelings about them — that I was another “middle-aged white dude”. I was 38.

Yet within a few months I realised they were right: I had a favourite garden centre, I had joined the National Trust and, most terrifying of all, I had found myself listening to Steve Wright in the afternoon on Radio 2. That’s not even the end of the story. I loved the show, until Wright played Pulp’s “Common People” and, at the end, mentioned that it was one of the afternoon’s “Oldies”. I switched the radio off and sat in silence for the rest of my journey. Within a year or two, I had given up comedy, moved to Cornwall and taken up wild swimming.

Today, I am tempted to buy that tweet as a non-fungible token — if that wasn’t an extremely silly thing to do — as it changed my life. Perhaps the tweeter would throw in the rest of their thread, in which they expanded on my problematic cisheteronormativity and other middle-aged attitudes. It is striking that the same person who believes that gender can be totally separated from biology will assume without thinking that being middle-aged is biologically predetermined; social constructionists like Margaret Morganroth Gullette thought that we are aged not primarily by biology but by culture.

The opposite was believed by William Osler, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford, who insisted on the “comparative uselessness” of men over 40: “the effective, moving, vitalising work of the world is done between the ages of twenty-five and forty — these fifteen golden years of plenty, in which there is always a balance in the mental bank and credit is still good”. After 40, you are only frittering away the capital; you could look on the midlife crisis, then, as the last attempt to get something in the bank for a rainy day.

Mark Jackson’s “intimate history of the Midlife Crisis”, Broken Dreams, is an attempt to synthesise these two viewpoints. Just as it would be foolish to deny that the drop in hormone levels on hitting middle age has any effect, it would be wrong to suggest that there are no cultural factors in the midlife crisis.

Before the twentieth century, the concept was unknown, partly because there was no middle age to speak of: those born in 1891 could expect to inherit from their parents at the age of 37, but baby boomers had to wait, on average, until they were 56. With people having children younger — or, at least, drawing a line under having children younger — this created a new demographic, sandwiched between the elderly and the youth.

At first, this age seemed full of promise: the best-selling book of 1933 was Life Begins at Forty, in which Walter Pitkin argued that while men “wore out at 40” in previous ages, with modern medicines and mechanisation increasing the active lifespan, “men and women alike turn from the ancient task of making a living to the strange new task of living”.

But it is just as true to say that “death begins at 40”. As one of the books cited by Professor Jackson, the Ladybird Book of the Midlife Crisis, puts it: “When we are young, we all dream of doing something wonderful and exciting with our lives. What will we be? A cosmonaut? An underwater detective? A tommy gunner? A groin surgeon? Anything is possible. And then, one day, it isn’t.”

Change is — to quote Brideshead Revisited, the best novel about middle age — “the only evidence of life”; and the moment you realise that promise will not be fulfilled is the day that you die. As Jane Pearce and Saul Newton of the Sullivan Institute for Research in Psychoanalysis wrote, “many people die during middle age, although they may wander through the world like zombies waiting to be buried decently for thirty years or more”.  It is no accident that Reginald Iolanthe Perrin carried a briefcase with the initials “RIP”.

The midlife crisis, then, is a choice between Death and Life; it is no wonder it is stressful. The phrase comes from a 1959 lecture by Elliott Jaques, who defined its parameters: “entering the prime of life, the stage of fulfilment, but at the same time the prime and fulfilment are dated. Death lies beyond…” Efforts to remain young — “the hypochondriacal concern over health and appearance, the emergence of sexual promiscuity in order to prove youth and potency, the hollowness and lack of genuine enjoyment of life, and the frequency of religious concern” — are all “attempts at a race against time”.

Although Jaques was a psychoanalyst, this diagnosis was not based on his practice; he only had one case study, a middle-aged man named “Mr N”. In an interview some years afterwards, he admitted that he was Mr N. (Professor Jackson fails to mention this; perhaps it would give rise to the outrageous suggestion that there is an element of narcissism in the midlife crisis.)

This book starts, quite rightly, with the Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Reggie Perrin is stuck in a rut; his children have left home, and he is bored with a pointless job that will take up his time until he retires. So he runs naked into the sea on the beach in Broadchurch, supposedly to commit suicide. The first series ends happily, however, when he returns in disguise as Martin Wellborn, and gets back together with the wife he abandoned. A happy ending, if you are willing to accept Elizabeth Perrin as someone who only exists in relation to her husband. (Where’s her midlife crisis?)

Professor Jackson uses the story of Reggie Perrin to illustrate the factors in the midlife crisis, with one curious omission. This is clearly a spiritual crisis — and I have seen Christian readings of the series as a self-emptying or kenosis as part of a spiritual journey; and other, less convincing readings, which point out that CJ, Perrin’s boss at Sunshine Desserts, is JC (or Jesus Christ) backwards or that Perrin dies and is reborn through water, and so forth.

David Nobbs, the writer of the novel and the TV series, was a fervent humanist, but even he accepted that there might be something in a Christian reading: “[Reggie] was a man trying to find an individual way through a corporate world. It was implicit that he was without religious faith. He was searching for value, for moral certainty.”

This is puzzling since even Jaques’s original diagnosis of the Midlife Crisis took as its starting point Dante’s Divine Comedy: “Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark / For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” Certainly a spiritual solution would have been of more use to Reggie Perrin than to have his crisis ascribed to his age, class and other demographic factors; it is clear that medical intervention was not going to work. I fully accept that the company doctor at Perrin’s office was not at the cutting edge of medical science, but this is as far as that will take you:

Doc Morrissey: Do you find you can’t finish the crossword like you used to, nasty taste in the mouth in the mornings, can’t stop thinking about sex, can’t start doing anything about sex, wake up with a sweat in the mornings, keep falling asleep during ‘”Play For Today”?

Reginald Perrin: That’s extraordinary, Doc! That’s exactly how I’ve been feeling.

Doc Morrissey: So have I. I wonder what it is?