How old is the man in this portrait? Just yell out his age without thinking. Thank you. I’ll reveal it later.
Whatever specific age you said, I’m sure you saw him as middle-aged rather than young or old.
The term ‘middle-aged’ first appeared (appropriately) in the Middle Ages, the 14th century, when they also used ‘middle-life’ and ‘middle-eld’.
But what on earth does ‘middle-aged’ mean? Am I middle-aged? Are you? Can you ever use it objectively? Technically, I guess it means “in the middle of your life.” But no-one ever knows when that is.
The Oxford English Dictionary is frighteningly precise: “aged 45-60”
But the Chambers English Dictionary is a little kinder: “between youth and old age, variously reckoned to suit the reckoner”
Other (less civilised) dictionaries state that you become middle-aged at 40.
So that means I am. Along with Brad Pitt (40), Rob Lowe (40) and Johnny Depp (41). All of us are classic middle-aged types. Brad, Rob, Johnny and I often converge on our real-ale local to smoke our pipes and make curmudgeonly comments in our cardigans.
Sometimes, we’re joined by Fatboy Slim (40), Boy George (43), Madonna (46), Johnny Rotten (48). And, of course, Little Jimmy Osmond (41).
OK. Madonna does have her middle-aged moments. But the rest of them? And what about Mick Jagger (55), Tom Jones (64), and Tina Turner (65)?
Even people I think of as ‘young’ are approaching what was once considered almost middle-aged. Robbie Williams and Leonardo de Caprio are 30. Ant and Dec are 30 next year.
And 30 is the age of the chap in the portrait above, by the 17th century artist Frans Hals. In those days, 30 was pretty old.
In the Middle Ages, average life expectancy in England was only about 35. So you were technically middle-aged at 17. Less than half of the children born to medieval Royals actually survived into their 20s.
And in 2004, you’re unlikely to make it to 40 in most of sub-Saharan Africa. That means you’re ‘middle-aged’ in your teens.
According to the World Health Organisation, average life expectancy in Sierra Leone is a mere 26. In Zambia, it rises to 30. But things are better in South Africa, where you can expect to live to almost 40.
At the other end of the spectrum though, it’s 75 in Japan, 72 in the UK and 70 in the USA.
And a 1999 survey (by Future Foundation) suggested that, in the UK, life definitely begins at 40. Like stubborn teenagers, the UK’s over-40s are totally rejecting the middle-aged stereotype. The study (of a thousand 45-54 year-olds) revealed they’d rather wear Gap than M&S and spend savings on holidays than homes.
But ‘middle-aged’ grumpiness does appear to be setting in earlier. In 2002, Mori claimed that 35-54 year-olds are “consistently cross and fed up.” The survey dubbed them ‘Meldrews’. Not boring, but simply “disillusioned” compared to the optimistic over-55s.
The over 55s do seem phenomenally young to me. Recently, a friend’s father asked for a gothic cloak for his 60th birthday. This seemed outrageously hip. Then I did my maths and realised that, if he turned 60 in 2004, he’d have been just 20 in 1964. One of the Flower Power generation.
I also know a couple who go abroad on holiday three times a year, go swimming, play golf most days and go to see a new film once a week. Young? Middle-aged? No. I’m talking about my parents. Aged 78 and 80.
So…I’m afraid I’ve cornered myself into a cliche: being middle-aged is, as they say, a state of mind. Some people (Woody Allen, Alan Bennett, Michael Aspel) have been middle-aged since birth. Others never will be. It’s all as relative as a Pringle pullover (trendy again in some teen circles).
I myself have been much more of a Meldrew this November than I was in October, purely thanks to my hip accident at the gym. But I actually enjoy the Janus-like status of my age. I can eat a cream tea in Suffolk then go clubbing in Soho on the very same day. I can listen to XFM and Radio 3. I can read Heat and The Telegraph.
On the other hand, I would look pretty silly if I wore a baseball hat backwards, pootled round Hertford on a skateboard, or said “dude”, “cool” or “uni.” I’m all for mutton dressed as lamb, but there’s a time and a place for a sheep to be dishonest.
So perhaps there are some actual, objective signifiers of middle-agedness.
Here are some criteria that occurred to me earlier when I was watering my hanging baskets while listening to Perry Como:
You know you’re middle-aged when…
you get annoyed by teenagers wearing flares that trail on the ground and trainers with the laces not done up
you think Fergie’s a princess and not a DJ
you know how to put a vinyl record on and still use CDs rather than MP3s
you find predictive texting perplexing and refuse to write in textspeak
you think it’s wrong that newsreaders stand up and news reporters no longer wear ties
you get angry when young people mumble (or speak too loudly) and make their voices go up? Interrogatively? At the end of every phrase?
you have nostalgic conversations about chocolate bars that are no longer on the market
you always take a jumper, just in case…
all policemen, dentists and academics seem too young
you have a party and your neighbours don’t notice
your friends phone you at 10pm and ask: “did I wake you?”
your back goes out more often than you do
I also rather like these definitions:
“Middle-aged is ten years older than you are” Anon
“Middle age is when you’re old enough to know better, but still young enough to do it” Anon
“Middle age is when you’ve met so many people that every new person you meet reminds you of someone else” Anon
“Middle age is when your broad mind and narrow waist begin to change places” E Joseph Cossman
“The young know everything, the old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything” Oscar Wilde
“The soul is born old but grows young. That is the comedy of life. And the body is born young and grows old. That is life’s tragedy” Oscar Wilde
“Middle age is when you’re sitting at home on a Saturday night and the telephone rings and you hope it isn’t for you” Ogden Nash
Quiz? Are You Middle-Aged?
Finally, put your reading glasses on and try this exclusive and deeply scientific quiz. Tot up your scores, then Peacockshock will definitively diagnose how middle-aged you are…
(1) Can you name this week’s Number One? Yes:1 No:0
(2) Do you own any clothes by Diesel? Yes:1 No:0
(3) Can you name all the current Blue Peter presenters? Yes:1 No:0
(4) Do you have a copy of Heat in your house? Yes:1 No:0
(5) Would you enjoy a snowboarding holiday? Yes:1 No:0
(6) Do you know who Zane Lowe is? Yes:1 No:0
(7) Have you stayed up beyond 1am in the last week (for reasons other than back-pain, indigestion, insomnia due to office politics or whatever)? Yes:1 No:0
(8) Do you know what Manumission is? Yes:1 No:0
(9) Have you ever referred to a university as a “uni”? Yes:1 No:0
(10) Do you have any piercings (in locations other than your ear lobes)? Yes:1 No:0
7-10: You’re young, or at least very trendy
4-6: You’re approaching middle-age: you may be an ‘adultescent’
1-3: You’re definitely middle-aged
0: There’s no hope for you whatsoever
If this quiz has caused you to have a mid-life crisis, here are some answers and crucial facts (correct on 29 Nov 2004):
This week’s UK number one single is: I’ll Stand by You by Girls Aloud
Diesel is a fashion label
Blue Peter is currently presented by: Konnie Huq, Liz Barker, Matt Baker and Simon Thomas
Heat is a pop-culture and gossip magazine
Zane Lowe is a presenter on BBC Radio 1 and…
Manumission is a famous nightclub in Ibiza…it’s not something that happens in a car engine
If you have any middle-aged definitions or anecdotes, please send them to me via the Contact Me page.
In return, I’ll put them up on the site and email you a pair of fluffy slippers (assuming you’re young enough to know how to open a jpeg attachment or even know what one is).
You may recall my recent entry about Edith Sitwell’s objection to LOUD CHILDREN on trains. Well, I was just listening to Damien Rice’s mostly excellent CD ‘O’ and I heard the following lyrics:
“Children scream, or so it seems, louder than before.”
I agree. They do. IT OUGHT TO BE STOPPED. NOW.
Here are some more LPs from my collection. People are often reduced to tears by my beautiful collection of album covers.