Old enough to know better: Toby Young gets to grips with his midlife crisis

According to a new survey, middle age is the most miserable time of our lives, as youthful dreams slowly fade to grey. But is it really that bad? And is there anything we can do about it? Here, we ask two writers to share their experiences
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Toby Young

He may be bald and broke, but the 44-year-old is keeping hope alive

"Keep true to the dreams of thy youth," wrote Schiller, summing up what is, perhaps, the commonest theme of Western drama. It is there in Polonius's famous advice to Laertes, as well as Eilert Lovborg's rehabilitation in Hedda Gabler. Don't sell out, is the message. Not only will you lose your self-respect, you will endanger your immortal soul.

This turns out to be spectacularly bad advice. According to a recent survey involving over 2m people in 72 countries, we all suffer from depression in middle age because that's when we discover we aren't going to achieve our dreams. "We cannot all be captain of the national football team or a rock star," says Professor Andrew Oswald, one of the architects of the survey. "The thirties and forties are therefore painful times when reality sets in." Still, it's not all bad news. Once we have made the adjustment and lowered our expectations, happiness returns. "We learn to count our blessings when we get older," says Professor Oswald. "We see friends and family die and we see bad things happen and are just happy to be alive." The implication of this survey – the largest ever conducted into mental health and human happiness – is that we should abandon the dreams of our youth just as soon as we possibly can.

Like tens of millions of people throughout the world, my dream is to make it in Hollywood. For 25 years, I have been churning out screenplays – books and plays as well, but mainly screenplays – in the hope of getting that call in the middle of the night from a big Hollywood producer: "Drop everything. I want you to write a picture for me. My private jet will be arriving in the morning to pick you up."

The problem is, I'm 44 years old. Should I wake up and smell the coffee? The situation is complicated – as it often is for middle-aged people – by family commitments. My wife is pregnant with our fourth child and the house we live in is in urgent need of repair. Is it fair to make them suffer while I continue to dream? In the past, I justified the amount of time I spent on unpaid work on the grounds that when I eventually made it, everyone in my family would benefit. Now that middle age has set in, I am not so confident. Perhaps it is time to put away childish things.

One of the problems with the dreams of thy youth is that you need to be fairly vigorous to achieve them. If David Beckham is considered a bit past it at 32, what hope do old codgers like me have? I remember quite clearly the first time it dawned on me that I was getting old. One of my shoelaces had come undone and I was about to bend down to tie it up when I thought, "Hang on. If I wait until the other one comes undone, I'll only have to bend over once to tie up both laces." Once you begin strategising to reduce the number of times you'll have to bend down your salad days are over.

Professor Oswald and his colleagues reported that, for most people, the onset of middle age was gradual – and they went on to describe the distribution of happiness over a person's life as U-shaped. For me, though, it is more like a V. I suffered from Peter Pan Syndrome – my youth seemed to extend into my late thirties – and the upshot is that middle age took me by surprise. One minute my life seemed to stretch before me like an endless plain, the next I was perched on the edge of a precipice, staring into the abyss. Forty may be the new 20, but 50 is still 50 whichever way you cut it. That means I have a lot of growing up to do in the next few years. The term "middle-aged" is inappropriate: I don't appear to have experienced the "middle" part at all. I'm heading straight to jail without passing Go.

Having so many children in such quick succession probably hasn't helped. When I married my wife in 2001 she was a 26-year-old trainee solicitor and I thought it wouldn't be long before she started bringing in the moolah. I even entertained the idea that she would become the breadwinner as I toiled away in my study, working on my masterpiece. Now, less than seven years later, I have four dependents and there will soon be one more. If I still had any hair left, it would surely have turned grey by now.

This feeling of being weighed down by responsibility must account for why so many men abandon their dreams in middle age: it is a way of easing the burden. In the years ahead, they will have a hard enough time enabling their children to fulfil their ambitions without fretting about their own. When you have kids, they displace you as a source of anxiety. I no longer worry about my health, I worry about theirs; I am no longer concerned with my happiness, I am concerned with theirs. In the same way, I can see their dreams eclipsing mine. I've noticed this phenomenon among my friends – an act of transference takes place. In a sense, they haven't abandoned their hopes; they've relocated them.

To describe it like this makes it sound heroic – just another sacrifice parents make for their children – but that may be self-deluding. Perhaps the reason parents put their children first is so they can let go of their dreams without having to admit defeat. "Looking after children can be a subtle way of giving up," says a character in Mother's Milk, Edward St Aubyn's midlife novel. "They become the whole ones, the well ones, the postponement of happiness, the ones who won't drink too much, give up, get divorced, become mentally ill. The part of oneself that's fighting against decay and depression is transferred to guarding them against decay and depression. In the meantime one decays and gets depressed."

If I want to continue writing screenplays, one step I can take is to stop having children. My wife wants me to have a vasectomy – "Snip, snip," she says, turning her fingers into a pair of scissors – but that may not be necessary. A 45-year-old friend of mine says he has given up his habit of masturbating after lunch because it leaves him completely exhausted for the rest of the day. ("It's like having a mild form of malaria," he says.) By the time you hit your mid-forties, your sex drive can begin to feel like an unwanted houseguest. In the words of Kingsley Amis, it is like being tethered to a goat.

Of course, some men react to this impending decline by becoming goats themselves. They do not go gentle into that good night, but rave, rave against the dying of the light. High-profile examples include the 42-year-old Lembit Opik MP, who took up with a 25-year-old Cheeky Girl last year, and Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to ' Uzbekistan, who left his wife and children for a 22- year-old belly dancer. One theory is that such behaviour isn't triggered by the age of the men, but the age of their partners. The biological imperative to reproduce is so strong that men automatically look elsewhere when their wives become incapable of breeding. In this light, the reason middle-aged men go out and buy shiny red sports cars isn't because they're trying to regain their youth, it is to attract younger women.

Among my peer group, I've never witnessed the full, Ollie Reed meltdown. Most of my male friends put off the moment when they settled down and got married until well into their thirties and, as a result, the onset of middle age feels less like a crisis and more a choice. It's the lifestyle equivalent of shaving your head: I'm not going bald, I'm choosing to be bald.

That is not to say my friends are immune to the indignities of middle age. It used to be just women who were accused of being mutton dressed as lamb; now men have got in on the act. In parts of west London it is not uncommon to see "cool dads" dressed in exactly the same outfits as their 10-year-old sons. My wife, who is now 33, thinks there ought to be a law against men over 40 wearing their shirts untucked. She blames Jeremy Clarkson.

Fortunately, I've never gone in for age-inappropriate behaviour. I'm all too aware of my own mortality. I only have to read about a fatal disease and, within seconds, I'm checking my body for the symptoms. Martin Amis once remarked that after the age of 40 you have no choice over what to think about when you wake up in the middle of the night, and that's certainly true of me. Some people take comfort from the fact that their parents are still alive, standing between them and the Grim Reaper, but both of my parents are gone. Indeed, one of the reasons I'm clinging to the dreams of my youth is because letting go would feel like taking a step nearer to the grave. As many survivors of concentration camps have reported, hope is capable of keeping you alive. Once that's gone, the light in your eyes is extinguished. It's just a matter of waiting for the hangman's noose.

As middle age fastens its grip around my neck, I feel like St Augustine, who prayed for chastity, but didn't want it straight away. Oh God, give me the peace and tranquility that comes with a more realistic assessment of my abilities – but not yet. Please God, not yet.

Toby Young's Ferrari F430 Spider was provided by the Capital Prestige Car Hire and Supercar Members Club (tel: 01753 865 206, www.capitalprestige.com)

Lisa Markwell

The key to staying in the game at 42? Willpower – and a rowing machine

Looking good in middle age? It's in the jeans. Yes, you did read that right. The amount of wrinkles and varicose veins that start to appear are in the genes, but these days, whether you spend your forties looking middle-aged or youthful is down to whether you can rock a pair of skinny jeans.

When did that happen? My mother was approaching grannydom in something stone-washed and peg-topped at my age; I'm currently torn between J Brand straight legs and APC Super Seventies baggies. I don't claim to look any better in either of them than your average 42-year-old, but I want them because they represent Not Giving Up.

Not Giving Up is the mantra of the modern middle-aged woman. We might fight in an unseemly fashion to get our hands on the new Aldi anti-ageing cream, or cram our burgeoning corns into a pair of Max Mara platforms and weep silently along the school run, but it's worth it to stay looking youthful (as opposed to young. Let's keep within the realms of possibility).

One fellow "MA" told me she works damned hard to stay slim, stylish and smooth-skinned because if she doesn't she wouldn't be able to blame her husband if he ran off with a younger woman. And if that sounds Stepford-like and sad, consider that it's quite probably true that when many women's arses go south, their partners go west in their midlife-crisis sports car with a starry-eyed twentysomething. Because, while he may be inwardly worried about male pattern baldness and that paunch, he's not going to let that spoil his fun.

We, meanwhile, would rather forgo a beach holiday than be seen with a crêpey stomach and dark roots. Maintenance is our watchword. I might have a full-time job and two children to wrangle, but I've also just had a haircut and highlights, bought the platform shoes, the dry-clean-only jeans and investigated a new designer "silk powder" foundation. I'm Not Giving Up, nor giving in to a practical ponytail and E-Z-wash jeans. Because middle age in this age is when you can no longer just throw something on and have insouciant style – this older skin, hair and body needs subtle assistance.

But does all this mean, as a recent survey suggests, that middle age is when we are at the bottom of the U-shape of life's happiness, depressed and disenchanted? Let's consider the evidence, as collated in an entirely unscientific survey of my friends, all in their mid-forties.

The good stuff. One: I'm relieved not to be dating, on the whole. It scares me now. Two: my children are past the teeth-grindingly boring age of nappies and mushed-up food. Three: I have enough experience of cooking and making conversation (sometimes simultaneously) to make entertaining a breeze. Four: I'm happy with my lot and don't feel guilty about staying in to watch Masterchef rather than go out to some edgy theatre performance. Five: I'm in my sexual prime and, what's more, I've got the confidence to ask for what I want in bed...

Not so good. One: I was recently mistaken for my slightly younger colleague's mother. Two: I'm staying with my husband more through fear of having to undress in front of someone new than an enduring love nurtured over years. Three: when I talk about something I did when I was ' young, my children ask, "Was that in the olden days?" Four: I may be able to fit into skinny jeans – thanks to the ruinously expensive rowing machine in the spare room – but the texture of my skin is changed forever, and nothing's going to bring back the tautness. Five: a visit to the doctor is likely to be for an illness that is really unsexy (think incontinence).

On reflection, leaving aside the beauty and fashion neuroses, there's no doubt that being a middle-aged woman is a positive experience. When I took my son to a Prince concert and danced and sang along, I felt no embarrassment, just delighted to still get a kick out of a performer I first saw 20 years earlier. When pencil skirts or nautical stripes are heralded as the new must-have, I generally already have it from last time. Being "MA" means a well-stocked wardrobe.

Envy – of the lifestyle, romantic and looks variety – has fallen away, as I appreciate what I have. There may be a few wrinkles, but they're generally smile lines and I'm not about to blow £200 on Botox to eradicate them. The joy of having survived most of the stuff life can throw at me is another benefit. Death, disease, penury, heartache, redundancy? Been there, done that.

Ten years of marriage and five years of being a mother is to be celebrated, as is having a career. My mother described becoming middle-aged as becoming invisible, because her life had – to anyone younger – become decidedly uninteresting. For my generation – financially independent, knowing but not jaded, still up for fun rather than down with the grandkids – middle age can be when we really hit our stride.

Yes, it takes time and energy to keep the brain and body perky, but it's worth it if I feel that I am still a force to be reckoned with. (It's inevitable that in the end, someone younger, brighter and less jaded will leapfrog me in my career, but if it happened tomorrow, would I have the classic midlife crisis? Or would I have, as many women do, a midlife creativity burst? I like to think the latter.)

The magazine I work on, Easy Living, is for and about confident, stylish women, many of whom are hitting forty-something. They tell us they're out there loving their lives, retraining as aromatherapists, starting up groovy B&Bs or even writing books about being the woman who can (or can't) "Have It All". It's pretty inspiring. And it sure beats having an affair, pretending to like The Kooks and struggling to get out of your low-slung Maserati. And let's not forget that the average man in his forties spends well over £100 a year on grooming products – not much less than us women.

Middle age these days is the chance to give a last hurrah to youth, if done with the benefit of knowing what you can get away with. I'm the happiest I think I've ever been, despite the onset of grey hair, a stomach that won't go flat and worsening eyesight. And if hindsight has taught me anything while I'm at the bottom of the U-shape, it's this: when I was 30 I thought I should change myself. Now I'm in my forties I look back at photos and think "Christ, I looked fine. Great, maybe." So when I'm fiftysomething, I'll look back at the picture here and think, "Whoa, I was still in the game."

Lisa Markwell is features director of 'Easy Living' magazine