Research revealing that the average mid-life crisis now hits as early as 35 leaves me wondering if us thirty-somethings really do have it worst — or if we’re just the most self-fixated, soulless bunch of whingers in the country.
For a few years now I’ve been reading about how the mid-thirties to mid-forties age group are ‘suffering’ because of raised expectations, social pressures and a confused sense of identity. In other words, the generation who were brought up to focus on their own fulfilment at the expense of everything else are discovering they’ve spent years building a life with a spiritual vacuum at its centre.
Almost all of the problems the research highlighted — anxiety caused by career competitiveness; guilt created by the longest working hours in Europe and the subsequent lack of time spent with family; an inexplicable lack of equanimity despite material accumulation — are a result of being trained to prioritise social climbing, visible financial success and self-gratification in our formative days.
The me-me-me ethos of the Thatcher years impinged on everyone who became a teenager in the Eighties, and to be honest, the Blair years did little to halt the speeding train of have-it-all consumerism, happy to continue to make Gods of the richest and most famous among us.
Only a couple of weeks ago I was reading about a 29-year-old journalist who believed she was having an ‘early life’ crisis. Plagued by loneliness, she wrote beseechingly about how most of her social life took place on Facebook because she had to commit so much time to ‘shining’ in her ultra-competitive workplace.
She was resentful that she worked so hard in a job she didn’t love but still could only afford heels from Office while her friends were tottering around in Christian Louboutins.
It would have been pointless to tell her she was free to stop comparing herself to her friends and worrying about what other people thought and that she was confusing worth with status. She wouldn’t have understood. She was hardwired to believe differently.
Similarly, only yesterday a school-run mum was telling me how her selfish husband didn’t understand how “genuinely depressing” it had been for her to spend the last two years of her life having to co-exist with “totally the wrong fireplace” in the living-room of her new four bed townhouse.
Basic psychology tells us that helping other people and contributing towards your community actually provides far longer, more durable happiness than satisfying yourself, as well as creating a stronger, more secure society from which we all benefit.
But too many of us just don’t have the patience for that kind of slow-burn contentment — we want stuff, lots of it, and now. Because, as Ms Cole keeps telling us, we’re worth it.
The post-recession austerity will hit hard, and will bring pain, but it’s possible some shreds of goodness will come from it. Perhaps flaunting wealth and the accumulation of status symbols will become regarded as vulgar and thus, comparing our cashflow with that of our friends and neighbours will be more difficult.
Maybe we’ll remember how to value achievements like having a positive impact on those around us, or a strong, well-tended bond with our kids, rather than celebrating those who boast of ‘mowing down’ everyone who gets in their way ( (c) The Apprentice).
And maybe we’ll come back to understanding that self-sacrifice is the key to being a decent citizen, a good parent and a happy human being.