Status anxiety

The saddest discovery of middle age: I can get by without my old friends

13 July 2013

9:00 AM

13 July 2013

9:00 AM

A few years ago, I got the shock of my life when a girl I was sitting next to at a 21st birthday party asked me if I was a dad.

‘Are you asking if I have children?’ I said.

‘No, I’m asking if you’re the father of one of the guests.’

I almost fell off my chair. Until that moment, I had no idea that young people see me as middle-aged. I was 45 at the time so it shouldn’t have come as a shock, but I like to think I’ve inherited my father’s youthful appearance. Indeed, until that moment I was still pitching travel editors with the ‘amusing’ idea of going on an 18-30 holiday and trying to pass as 29.

I’m now approaching my 50th birthday and it won’t be long before I’ll be flattered if people still think of me as middle-aged. My nine-year-old daughter has already pointed out that life expectancy for British males is 78, which means I reached the mid-point when I was 39. At 49, I’m more than halfway through the third quartile.

The mid-century milestone is a tough one to ignore because you start getting invitations to your friends’ 50th birthday parties. These tend to be particularly depressing affairs, because it’s only those friends who are much more successful than you who bother to celebrate — and it’s less of a celebration and more like an opportunity to show off. I’m not just talking about country houses, circus tents and sit-down dinners for 300. It’s the bells and whistles that get you. Merchant bankers holding 50ths must keep the fireworks industry in business.

Catching up with your old friends is a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, you feel a spontaneous wellspring of affection when you set eyes on them and can usually take up where you left off, as though the intervening 25 years haven’t happened. They’ve often become a bit nicer, too, particularly if their lives haven’t turned out the way they hoped. At best, they’ve developed a rueful humanity informed by the ups and downs they’ve experienced.

But it can also be quite melancholic, because you realise you’ve got along perfectly well without them for a quarter of a century. In your twenties and thirties, you think your friends are all incredibly special and you can’t imagine going on life’s journey without them. You fondly believe that you’ll spend the rest of your lives together, in and out of each other’s houses, sharing your triumphs and disasters. It will be like A Dance to the Music of Time.

Then, as you get older, you inevitably drift apart. The turning point for me was having children. I used to have a social circle that stretched to the West Coast of the United States at one end of the globe and South Africa on the other. Now, it has shrunk to a handful of streets in Acton. The only people I see socially are those with children the same age as mine who live within a one-mile radius of my house.

The depressing thing is that these new friends are actually perfectly good substitutes for the old ones. I imagined that my closest friends were irreplaceable, but that turns out to be wrong. They’re not merely replaceable; they’re replaceable by the random collection of people who happen to live on your street.

I don’t know why this realisation makes me sad. Perhaps it’s because I invested so much in my friends in my younger days. In the absence of religion or a particularly close family, they became the most important thing in my life. Discovering that it’s perfectly possible to survive without them — and survive without any diminution of warmth and laughter — is a bit like losing my faith.

My experience of this may be more extreme than most, on account of having a large family and an extended family in the form of the children, parents and staff of the West London Free School. If I’m not with one family, I’m with the other, leaving almost no time for old friends. Perhaps I’ve trained myself to miss them less because my life would be too painful otherwise.

I was discussing this with one of my oldest friends, whom I spent last weekend with, having been to his 50th in June. He suggested the reason I don’t really care who I’m spending time with — my oldest friend or the man delivering the mail — is because all I want is an audience. ‘One pair of ears is as good as another,’ he quipped. I hope that’s not the explanation, but he may have a point.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • Lucindah

    Interesting. I’m, I believe, a fairly youthful looking 59 year old. Twice on a recent visit to London I was shockingly offered a seat on the tube. The trouble with friends is that one needs points of reference so one can catch up with old mates but once the reminiscing is over, there’s not much left. We’ve all moved off in different directions and it’s not so easy to establish common ground.

  • formonitoring

    thoughtful, honest, illuminating. melancholy, moving. who are you and what have you done with the real toby young?

    • Piggly Wiggly

      Toby has a reputation for dishonesty and thoughtlessness? I doubt it.

  • monday night

    It’s a more optimistic piece than it appears. thank god we discover that the children’s mates’ parents are as nice as our carefully chosen “life long friends”. But there are certain times when you need someone if not life long then at least the same age. You can’t enjoy the Bowie exhibition with someone who wasn’t 14 when you were. It would be impossible with someone under 35.

  • Shoe On Head

    Dead-on: “They’ve often become a bit nicer, too, particularly if their lives haven’t turned out the way they hoped.”

  • Piggly Wiggly

    Toby: you’re a lucky man.

    1. You have old friends. Some of us, such as yours Piggly Wiggly, don’t even have new ones.

    2. You will live a lot longer than 78 (trust me on this one).

    3. Even if you don’t live longer than 78, old age is not worth the agony, anyway. So see it this way: if you have the energy, fitness, and chutzpah (takes more gargling than your average throat rinse) to make it past 78, you will still be having a rewarding life. If on the other hand you drop dead of a sudden heart attach at 69, you will still have had a wonderful life — only without getting ugly, decrepit, and forcibly divorced from your driver’s licence (as recently happened to my grandparents, who are in their mid-to-late 80s).

    4. Your friends may have fireworks. You have insight and humanity. I’d take what you have, any day.

  • RU4Real

    Interesting read. I am 45 and in in the last couple of years I have stepped back a bit and realized my circle of friends – or the people I “thought” were friends – has quite drastically changed.

    The strange thing is (or maybe not so strange) is I am enjoying life more than ever. I am in a committed relationship of 8 years. Now, I enjoy meeting and chatting with a stranger in the elevator as much – or more so – stressing over how I am going to carry a conversation with that former co-worker from 10 years ago whom I am meeting for an after-work beer.

    As I have gotten older my tolerance for B.S. has lessened. I simply won’t spend time with people who are either energy suckers, or who only seem to come around when they need something. Nope, won’t do it. I am just as content and happy with my partner and our life together, sprinkled in with meeting new people – even if it’s a one-time experience.

    With our technologically-advanced world, people have so many more things to pull at their time and attention. It’s not just kids … It’s being tied to work around the clock because you have a Blackberry. It’s having social networks, it’s having streaming of movies on your phone, tv, tablet. Our world has changed so much … even in the last 5 years.

    I enjoy what I now call a “simple life.” Simple meaning that I no longer feel the need to extend that branch to a former co-worker I knew from 10 years ago. If I am the only one making the effort in the relationship … it’s not a relationship. I don’t “need” or “want” to be the only one making an effort to keep in touch with someone from my past.
    For the first 35 years or so of my life I was more concerned with everyone else but me. Meaning, I had created this image of showing how hard of a worker I was; what neighborhood I lived in; how socially active I was by attending this event and that event. Now that I look back I realize just how exhausting that was.
    As I have gotten older … none of that matters to me. What matters to me now is being happy with ME. Being happy. Being healthy. Enjoying each day. Showing love to my partner … loving myself … and having a good heart.
    And you know what … I don’t need “acquaintances” to make me happy in life. It’s a liberating feeling.