So, Matt, it’s fair to say we’ve been through a pretty challenging six months. How have you coped?
Badly. The irony is that I’ve just written a whole book about how the rat race is making us all unhappy. The rat race ended rather abruptly in March and, suddenly, we were all stuck at home with our kids. The dream. In reality, it wasn’t quite that simple, was it? Working from home while home schooling (my wife works in our local hospital) was yes, pretty challenging. I’m never going to Zoom again.
What have you learnt from the last few months?
Lockdown’s proof the answer is not simple. When men are at work, they worry they’re not spending enough time at home. When they’re at home, they worry they’re not ticking all the boxes at work. We’re quite good at the whole grass-is-greener thing.
Wouldn’t it be great to work from home more often? In reality, home workers were putting in an average of an hour more a day than they did when they were in the office. What I’ve learnt is that you have to have clear boundaries. Even in normal times, we’re never more than an arm’s length away from our work emails. You have to learn to switch off. That’s become even more critical this year.
Has there been a silver lining to lockdown?
So many men I’ve spoken to have realised they can work more flexibly. They can stagger hours and be around for things they might have missed when they were commuting five days a week. For a long time, we have needed to get much better at asking for time off. Mums take all the burden of this stuff. Dads are way behind. The (rather rose-tinted) silver lining is that that doesn’t wash any more. Our kids have turned up on conference calls. We’ve had to break off meetings to teach trigonometry. That’s great. Ish.
Do you think any of the lifestyle changes we’ve made are permanent?
I spoke to one man who said that, before lockdown, he would have laughed if someone had told him he could do his big, flashy job from home. By the end of March, he’d emailed his boss saying he was never going back to the office again. His boss was fine with that because his work was just as good. I won’t go that far but I think the five-day model, for those of us who can work from home, is out the window.
Moving onto the even bigger picture, why are so many men unhappy right now?
A male midlife crisis is nothing new. The problem is it’s seen as almost inevitable. You slog through school, early adulthood and, if you’re really crazy, fatherhood, without ever really taking a breath. It’s all about ticking boxes, passing exams, climbing ladders. You come up for air in midlife and, for me at least, it’s a bit of a shock. You’ve done everything society asked of you and what have you got? Another 25 years at the coal face (30 if your mortgage provider has anything to do with it) then a gold watch and that’s it.
I think it’s particularly hard right now for a few reasons. House prices have way outstripped salaries. Tech has absolutely killed our ability to switch off and escape. And we’re a bit of a middle generation between the old patriarchal version of fatherhood (two weeks’ paternity leave is bonkers) and the New Man hands-on model. Most of the men I interviewed for the book were caught between these two models. They were doing the full presenteeism thing at work then racing home to fall asleep during the bedtime story. They make no time for themselves which is why, when the kids can finally do up their own seat belts, you get this period of reflection. And that’s when men take up cycling. Or buy a red sports car.
Why do we struggle to admit we’re struggling?
From the first time a kid is handed a gold star for good behaviour, we’re in trouble. Our education system is too focused on getting kids to sit still and learn, and not enough on allowing them to express themselves. When boys are told to “man up” by their peers (and, tsk, tsk, their parents) when they show emotion, we’re teaching them that success in life is all about putting on a brave face and getting on with it. By the time we reach our gnarled later decades, it’s just become so ingrained that we don’t ask for help.
A doctor who specialises in men’s health told me it was “normal” for men to come in for an appointment and spend nine of the ten minutes talking about an ingrowing toe nail. Only on the way out the door would they pluck up the courage to say, “Oh, and by the way, my testicles have gone purple.”
Is some level of mid-life crisis inevitable?
Not a full-on crisis, no. That’s quite rare. But if you’re asking about a midlife slump, a sense of soldiering on unhappily, then yes. Inevitable. Or at least that’s what I thought when I started this project two years ago. I was stuck in the doldrums, super-stressed, not sleeping at night, worrying endlessly about money, the mortgage, my job, the lack of time I spent with my family. But it felt like there was zero room for manoeuvre. Now, I’m feeling more positive.
So there are ways to avoid all of this?
For the next generation of mid-lifers, there are lots of things you can do to make sure you insulate yourself against this. The most important thing is to make time for yourself. We’re really good at just ploughing on, always doing stuff in order to avoid being left with our (gloomy) thoughts. I started giving myself ten minutes a day of doing absolutely nothing. At first, it was bloody awful. I couldn’t switch off the spiralling inner voice, the Gollum. But now I’m better at it. It’s not quite mindfulness but I can be at rest without freaking out.
The other big lesson I got from a bunch of retired men who are part of the shed movement is that you need to have a passion. Most of them only developed their passion once they’d retired. They were very keen to impress upon me that I should start now. One of them was into collecting spanners. Another did crochet. I’m sure there are better options.
From the start of this project, how long did it take you to stop feeling miserable?
I’m still miserable, but for less of the time. I’ve spoken to enough inspiring people for this book to feel like life is not quite as relentless and treadmilling as it seemed. Most importantly – most cheesily – I’ve realised I’m not alone. That’s half the problem. You feel like you’re the only one and everyone else is just breezing through. Once you start talking to them, you realise we’re all in the same boat.
What advice would you now give to your 25-year-old self?
Spend more time enjoying the present. Spend more time working out what really makes you happy. Spend much less time worrying about the future. It’s going to get you anyway at some point.
What can fathers do to set their sons off on a better track?
Love is all it takes. As well as trying very hard not to add to the pressure they’re already under. (Exams schmexams.) Also, never tell them to be a brave boy when they’ve fallen over. Also, do the birds and the bees properly. Don’t leave it to the schoolyard and the internet, for Christ’s sake. So, yes, love is not all it takes.
You mention in the book you’ve found a lot of wellness solutions underwhelming. Why so?
I hate most life-coach stuff because they always feel like they’re dealing with the symptoms rather than addressing the problem itself. And most people who tell you you should do what you love or find a second career or follow your dreams have wound up becoming life coaches. I don’t want to hear from an accountant that followed his dream to become a life coach. We can’t all be life coaches.
Insomnia also has a starring role in the book – any tips?
Still struggling with that one. I just get up now and go downstairs. Anything other than lying in bed worrying about stuff.
You spoke to a lot of people for Man Down. Give us three things you learnt from them…
We’re all in it together.
The cliché that men don’t talk about their feelings is bollocks.
If we really want to find true happiness, we have to live in a caravan next to Loch Ness.
Finally, what are you hopeful about right now?
In general, I’m more hopeful than I’ve been in a long time. More specifically, I’m hopeful that the next time I go on a camping trip, it won’t rain. Ten years in a row, it’s been a washout. 2021 is going to be sunny.
Man Down: Why Men Are Unhappy and What We Can Do About It by Matt Rudd is published by Little, Brown Book Group on 10th September. Pre-order it here.
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