As Spotify declare that 42 is the age people start listening to chart music again, we examine the new rules of having a midlife crisis. How did we swap the Ferrari for Taylor Swift?
I have a Spotify playlist called ‘Classic’. It was, originally, the home of all my music that indisputably earned its place in the pantheon of greats: Bob Dylan pre-Blonde on Blonde, late 1990s Pulp, Rolling Stones, Joy Division, and some A-Ha. But recently in has crept Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’, Meghan Trainor’s ‘Lips are Movin’, and Heroes (We Could Be) by Alesso – bubblegum pop designed for teenage girls. I listen to it when I go running.
Let me be clear: I am a 40-year-old man, a father of four who wears tweed and reads historical biographies and I am having a pop-related midlife crisis. But I’m not alone. Spotify has undertaken some fascinating analysis on its 60 million customers based on their age and musical tastes. As you might expect, teenagers listen to the charts more than any other age group, and as they approach the age of 25 they embrace an ever wider range of sounds and genres. Then their tastes plateau and become trapped in aspic. But, around about the age of 42, says Eliot Van Buskirk, the in-house Data Story Teller at the streaming service “music taste briefly curves back to the popular charts — a musical midlife crisis and attempt to hearken back to our youth, perhaps?”
Midlife crises are still alive and well. Tom Johnson, head of analysis at Trajectory Partnership, an insight consultancy, which studies different demographics, says: “Life satisfaction and general happiness takes a nosedive from your 30s onwards.”
Just 13.7 per cent of people in their 40s say they are “very happy”, compared with 25.9 per cent of those in their 20s and 43.6 per cent in their 70s, according to his firm’s research. This is why, of course, people have a midlife crisis, and it is a recognised condition, rather than just a trope of sit coms. The NHS estimates that around 20 per cent of people will have gone through one by the age of 50.
But the rules have changed. Mostly because Generation X – those between 35 and 50 – are fundamentally different from our parents, the spoilt baby boomers, the first generation be born in a free NHS hospital, to enjoy free university education and currently spending their way through their copper-bottomed pensions.
My cohort’s acts of midlife rebellion are invariably less flash and extravagant because we still have most of our mortgage to pay off that’s (if we’re lucky enough to be on the housing ladder) and we know there isn’t much retirement income to look forward to. So, the red Ferrari has been replaced by a Pinarello Dogma racing bicycle (about £5,000) and the embarrassing leather jacket by a merino base layer from Rapha (“it just breathes so much better than Lycra”, you coo over your mid-ride espresso).
Cycling, of course, is the perfect midlife-crisis hobby, as evidenced by Patrick Dempsey, the gorgeous 49-year-old actor who plays Dr Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd in Grey’s Anatomy, the hit medical drama, whose wife has split with him after she, apparently, was fed up with all the time he spent on motor and cycle sports. Peltons of Mamils, (Middle-aged Men in Lyra, or, in fact, merino wool) — exercising their thigh muscles and their demons – now easily outnumber klaxons of Clarksons in their Testarossas.
Annie Auerbach, a director of Cultural Intelligence at Flamingo, an insight agency, says the fast car, the toupée and overpriced pair of Italian shoes, have been ditched for a number of reasons: “Societal status has shifted. In the past it might have been a badging form of status. You showed people you had money, you had success, with the things you could buy and the brands you could parade. Part of that shift is to do with longevity, we are living longer lives. People want to prove their bodies are vital, that they are able to compete.”
This also explains the explosion in popularity, with both men and women over the age of 40, for triathlons, marathons and “running holidays”. The most obvious example is Tough Mudder, an extreme sports event that has a cult-like following. It’s for people who actively relish the idea of crawling through a muddy, icy pond and being electrocuted (one of the most notorious Mudder obstacles). The average age of competitors is 29, but there are an increasingly number of over-40s entering one of the events. Over 4,000 people have the Tough Mudder logo tattooed on them. Which is an odd idea – I can’t imagine many people having their local tennis club’s logo inked on their upper arm.
The silverback gorilla’s desire to assert his superior status has always run deep in humans, but now the ultimate status is time, not money. Which explains why time consuming but culturally or athletically enriching experiences – Marathon des Sables, learning butchery, or detox holidays – are now so popular among the elite.
Tattoos, not just Tough Mudder ones, are now as much a part of a midlife crisis as scouring Facebook for old flames and booking tickets for Glastonbury (average age of attendant, 38). A recent survey found that almost a quarter of 40 to 59-year-olds have a tattoo somewhere on their body, compared with less than one in six of those aged between 18 and 24. Lena Headey, the 41-year-old Game of Thrones actress, has an impressively large tattoo across her back and appears to get a new adornment every few months.
If this sounds as if a modern midlife crisis is more akin to a teenage rebellion, there is good reason for this. We are, in fact, trying to fit in with our own children, which on average we are having so much later. But though the age gap between the generations may be much bigger, the connections are not. Our lives bisect with our children more than ever. “Demographic cultural barriers have become much more blurred,” says Auerbach. “Technology has helped with this, of course. Parents and their kids are both on Facebook, they watch the same films. Our cultural reference points are shared with our own children in a way we could not imagine sharing the same musical, or cultural tastes with our parents.”
This helps explain why so many ostensibly young fashion chains on the high street shops, be it H&M, Zara or TopShop, cater to daughters as well as their mothers.
If anything, parents are behaving worse than their children. Take drugs: in 2001, 29 per cent of UK schoolchildren said they had tried drugs. This fell to 16 per cent in 2013. Meanwhile the proportion of 35 to 44-year-olds taking cocaine has increased 9-fold since 1996, according to Government data.
So the modern midlife crisis is a strange and contradictory mix of drugs, booze, listening to Taylor Swift, yoga and cycling – a rave with kale juice on the side, with teeny bop songs rather than hardcore house. Even the old cliché of a midlife crisis – having an affair with a secretary – no longer holds quite true.
A study by Relate, the relationship charity, found last year that 24 per cent said they’d cheated on a partner at some point in their lives. That was quite a substantial drop from the 33 per cent who had admitted to being unfaithful in the same survey back in 2010.
In part, this is because falling marriage and divorce rates strongly suggest those who do walk down the aisle do so with far more commitment than the generation before.
But maybe the affair with the secretary is no longer a thing, because secretaries are a dying breed. Along with tippex. But not midlife crises, which are very much still flourishing.
Harry Wallop is a Feature Writer at the Daily Telegraph and writes the ‘Dad of 4’ column for Telegraph Men. He joined the Telegraph in 2004 and was previously the paper’s Consumer Affairs Editor, being named consumer affairs journalist of the year in 2008. He has fronted six ‘Dispatches’ documentaries as well as presenting other consumer shows for Channel 4 such as ‘Something For Nothing’. His book, ‘Consumed – How Shopping fed the Class System‘, was published this year in paperback.