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.