So this is 40 (frog in the pan remix)



OK, so this is 40. I’m not talking about some lame Hollywood film that attempts to convince you that the people who make films understand your life (they don’t by the way, they are super good looking, they have slaves, live in solid gold houses and hunt ordinary people at the weekends for sport).

No, this is 40. Me, sitting here in a hotel room in Quebec trying to feel that I’m crossing some kind of Rubicon. As a 40 year old I will undoubtedly be a much better person. I won’t lose my keys any more, I’ll probably get a watch, I’ll stop eating kebabs. I’m just guessing here, I think that it is pretty obvious that I have no real idea what adulthood feels like from the inside. I’ve seen other adults walking around, I’ve aped their behaviour, but I know that it is all a bit of a sham.

Obviously I am no different to when I was 20. While I stay the same those who have followed me become both younger and younger and increasingly confused. They don’t know who won the 1992 general election, they can’t name Dinosaur Jr’s biggest hit, and they talk about a babble of ringtones and reality TV shows that make no sense to me. This is not because I am old, it is because they are wrong. The things that I liked when I was 20 remain great and full of hidden depths (like everyone who did a PhD in the mid 1990s I can explain the semiotic importance of the Tellytubbies and the Spice Girls) while their interests show off the imminent collapse of society into a soup of triviality.

The danger is of course that I end up reinventing myself as a stereotypical grumpy old man. “Things were clearly better in my day. The internet was ruined when they closed down Netscape Navigator. They never should have renamed the Marathon as Snickers.” That sort of thing. While this might have been superficially appealing the grumpy old man brand has been stolen by rightwing opinion mongers like Jeremy Clarkson and so I’ll have to find some other way to reinvent myself. But, as I say, I’m not getting older anyway. I’m still the same old me, still young at heart. It is the world that is changing. It is reality that is speeding up and cracking while I say still as the definition of normality and stability.

Looking back should give me some perspective. I should be able to understand who I am by where I’ve been. 40 offers you a moment when it is possible to do this.

When I was 10 I was at school. I had no real ambitions or ideas about the future. I think that I might have been going through a period of obsession about the possibility of nuclear war, but that might have been before that. All I knew about school was that people kept telling me to stop wasting my time and “apply myself”. Meanwhile I managed to get myself in trouble with various low level escapades. “How did you lose your shoe? Surely you must have notice that you only had one on” – that sort of thing.

By the time I was 20 I was at university. I was having a brilliant time in a seemingly endless round of political meetings, indie night clubs, arguments about literary theory and conscious posturing as an intellectual (I bought a black roll neck and started drinking coffee). It was around this time that I met a friend who convinced me that I should seek to be an academic. He inducted me to the poisonous practice of reviewing the careers of existing academics and declaring them to be useless or burnt out. My ambitions may have been built on poison and unrealistic assumptions about my own brilliance and what the job of an academic might be, but for the first time I had career direction. Of course it is possible that the career direction was my friends rather than mine, but it would do for now.

At 30 I’d been through the academic mill, ground up and sorted as an unpleasant waste product. I had a PhD under my belt (finally) but I’d managed to slip through the field of English studies making almost no mark at all. My career direction had been gradually washed away by successive waves of disappointment in myself, my colleagues and the world of the university. This was not some revolutionary forge in which intellectuals tested their metal on a daily basis. These people (these so called academics) were just ordinary schmos going to work and talking about their kids and their mortgages. In disgust I turned away and resolved that I would never be an academic. I didn’t know what I would do with the rest of my life, but I did have this new job working with researchers and helping them with their careers. That might do for a bit. I also got a mortgage and a child. The chains of the bourgeoisie tightened their grip.

So now I’m 40. Two kids, house, academic job. I’m working in this career development field. I don’t think that it had even occurred to me that such a field existed when I was 30. I go to work, I travel, I do DIY, I worry about my pension, I try (honestly) not to offend people. I write things and the world doesn’t screech to a halt in amazement. The revolution hasn’t come yet. The world has changed, my world has changed and yet somewhere in there is me. Or am I, have I been boiled alive like the frog in the pan. The heat being gradually turned up until the flesh of my personality slews away? I think I’m happier than I’ve ever been before. I think that I’ve stayed true to my values and interests. But, have I?

So what has this shamble down memory lane taught me? Only that my career has been woven together out of surprising ingredients. The plans haven’t worked out, but I’ve gotten a bit better at the process of weaving. Retrospectively I can make some sense out of it all, but this is down to my skill as a storyteller (years of studying fiction have paid off in this at least). I haven’t achieved the things that I wanted to, but I don’t want the same things that I did. My capacity to predict my own future has proved to be very weak. I have no reason to think that I will be any better at guessing where I will be at 50 than I was in guessing where I would be at 40. All I know is that the world will keep changing and I’ll continue to be sure that I’m staying the same at the same time as changing every day.

So this is 40. Wonder what will happen next!


    • Thanks for this Tristram – I too am working in the career development field (as a careers adviser) after initially attempting to pursue academia following a PhD in English Literature! I felt sure I was the only one. Yes, life is funny and I am personally grateful for theorists like Krumboltz who remind us that the unpredictable can be OK and some of the best opportunities in life can come about from unplanned events. I hope to continue working as a careers adviser long-term, but who knows what may happen if our friend Gove continues to have his way? I try to remain optimistic and am grateful that learned people like you and Tony Watts are around to remind others of the value of what we do.

  1. What will happen? You’ll suddenly find that you’ve hit forty ten and the kids are older, the DIY you started needs doing again… I’d agree with AJ Cann, in your head you’ll always be 18. 40 is just one of those milestones that life throws at us to remind us of how lucky we are.

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