Middle age put on hold by the fab 40s

The once dreaded birthday is now Big Party time, writes Glenda Cooper
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The Independent Online
THE MAN was adamant: he wanted to spend a million pounds. And so the organisers fixed it: he took over a prestigious London hotel for three days and amused his guests with a range of entertainments.

Was it to celebrate a company take-over? A deal on the Stock Exchange? No, says Paul Baxter of organisers Fanfare 3000; the man merely wanted to celebrate his 40th birthday. "So we organised the hotel and found the entertainers, jugglers and artists he wanted."

In the past, the 40th birthday was kept under wraps, with the celebrant getting at most a few rueful cards, all with the motto "Life begins at..." But not any more. As celebrities such as Madonna, Michael Jackson and Michelle Pfeiffer reach the same age, the baby boomers are beginning to use it as an excuse to party, rather than deny it is happening at all.

The 40th is becoming the next Big Birthday after the 21st - but with the current 40-year-olds' greater spending power, as well as their delay in settling down and refusal to acknowledge getting older, the party is often better, wilder and much more expensive than the traditional coming of age.

Dorothy Rowe, psychologist and author of Time On Our Side, says that part of the reason is the way we have recast youth and age. "At the turn of the century the average lifespan was 42," she said, "so in the 19th- century novels of George Eliot, she refers to mothers who are really old at 40. You had to pack an awful lot - marriage, families - into those 40 years. Now our lifespan is in the late 70s for men and 80 for women, so 40 is only halfway."

She points out that this age group is also the baby boomers - those who can never believe they will grow old. "Some of them may have lost their jobs in the 1980s and 1990s but a lot of them are doing quite well," she said. "A lot of them haven't married and so they are celebrating another sort of life. Added to that, a lot of them don't have teenage children telling them they are old, so they don't feel it."

Ian McKerracher, chief executive of the Restaurants' Association, has himself turned 40 this year - and had a party. "It was a surprise party organised by my friends in March this year in a private room at the Berkeley Hotel," he said. "I was just told to be in black tie and I was taken there. It was wonderful.

"People see it as a celebration of what you've achieved. Certainly that was the case for me. I'd always set goals, such as to set up my own business by the time I was 30. Now at 40 I've realised that I'm at my most employable; I've got 20 years experience in the industry. However, I know that when I'm older I'll be less employable, so looking at it like that, 40 is something to celebrate."

He says he has noticed an increase in the number of people celebrating their 40th at restaurants: "You quite often see tables of 15 to 20 people or they often arrange country house hotels for the weekend. I think that's increasingly popular, especially if people want to bring partners or kids."

Mr Baxter, who has been setting up parties for 30 years, agrees that country weekends are a popular choice. He has just booked Brocket Hall for a 40th as we spoke. "That party will have a string quartet because it suits the venue," he said. "But a lot of people like to relive the 1950s and 1960s - particularly from a musical point of view. They very often have theme parties around those decades and they like dressing up to do so. We have a lot of bands which perform songs from that era which has a better visual effect than a DJ spinning records."

Sometimes they go for a wackier theme: "We've had parties on submarines, in the London Dungeon and museums. It is something people like, having unusual venues."

Charlie Fisher, whose company Fisher has organised such events as Sir Elton John's 50th birthday party, says that while his (very rich) clients can afford 30th and 50th parties as well as 40ths, "the 40ths tend to be more fun. There's more confidence amongst people at a 40th. They've made their money but there isn't yet the pressure of retirement. They are also at the peak of the amount of people they know".

Mr Fisher does not discuss his clients but says that pounds 250 a head for parties of 300 are not uncommon among his clients. Such a party would probably take a minimum of three months to organise. "Museums and Spencer House, near Green Park, are particularly popular," he added.

But whether it is the ordinary happy 40s celebrating their entry to the fifth decade or those high-spending party clients, Mr McKerracher has a vital piece of advice. "1958 was the worst year on record for wine production. But a friend of mine found some Australian cabernet that was very, very drinkable."