My Life Is Good But I’m Worried Yours is Better

Cartoonist Tim Kreider writes over at the New York Times about something he calls “the Referendum,” in which people in their early middle age (think 40 to 45) look at the lives of all their friends and try to figure out how their own lives match up to theirs. This is basically indistinguishable to what everybody does all the time — 20somethings look at their lives relative to their other friends too, I assure you, or at least did when I was that age — but Kreider’s thesis (or at least what I got out of it) was that at about 40 years of age, this comparison is more pertinent and poignant, because by that time you’ve already made all sorts of life choices that will define the rest of your life, and in some ways it’s just too late to go back and start over.

Essentially, at 40 or so, you’ve become who you are going to be for the rest of your life. Which means that, when you look at your friends’ choices, you do so with some measure of romanticism and envy, because those choices will no longer ever be yours. The only positive note about any of this (or so says Kreider) is that your friends likely look at your life through rose-colored glasses as well. Basicially, at 40, everyone’s over-romanticizing the life of their contemporaries.

It’s an interesting thesis, and in some ways dovetails into something I’ve thought for a while, which is that one’s 20th high school and college reunions are really the only ones that one needs to attend, because they’re the ones that let you see who all your classmates became when they grew up. At the reunions before the 20th, people are still figuring out what they’re doing with their lives; the ones afterward you show up just to find out who’s still breathing. But basically while one always has to leave room for epiphanies, freak-outs and karma, I do think when you see someone at 40, they are who they who they have become and will likely be for the remainder of their time on the planet. I could be wrong on this; ask me again when I’m 50. But it seems that way to me now.

I don’t know how much I agree about the rest of “The Referendum,” however. Or more accurately I think that I agree that “The Referendum” functions, but only to the extent one is unhappy with one’s own choices in life, or sees the choices one’s made in terms of what one’s lost in other opportunities. I suspect people who are satisfied with the choices they’ve made with their lives (rather than being resigned to them) look at things differently — they look at the lives their friends have and see the value of them and the cool things those lives offer, but wouldn’t trade because their own lives have enough value for them.

For example, this graph, in which Kreider, single and without children, discussing his friends with children (and, also, homes):

But I can only imagine the paralytic terror that must seize my friends with families as they lie awake calculating mortgage payments and college funds and realize that they are locked into their present lives for farther into the future than the mind’s eye can see. Judging from the unanimity with which parents preface any gripe about children with the disclaimer, “Although I would never wish I hadn’t had them and I can’t imagine life without them,” I can’t help but wonder whether they don’t have to repress precisely these thoughts on a daily basis.

This is a fairly depressing way of looking at life with children and mortgages, and so quite naturally if this is how you’re doing it, you’ll be romanticizing the lives of your friends without either. But it’s not impossible to look at college funds and mortgage payments as part of a long-term process that results in a) responsible, productive adults you’ve had a hand in creating and b) a place you own and stake a claim to, both of which are in their way laudable and worth the time and commitment. Now, maybe neither of these things are monumental, in terms of asking “what have I done with my life,” but it doesn’t mean that either is not desirable or worth doing. Not every desirable or good thing in one’s life is or should be monumental.

I think the real thing that bothers me about Kreider’s “Referendum” is that it seems to deny both agency and optimism, the latter not in the “hey! It’s a sunshiny day!” sense but in the “work as if these were the early days of a better nation” sense. Our lives are a combination of the choices we make, for better or for worse, and events that are largely out of our control, which we then have to deal with. It’s also a continuing process, to which we have to commit every morning when we wake up. I think Kreider’s “Referendum” is a tapping into the desire to escape one’s life rather than to commit to it. And, I don’t know. I think that’s not a way to go through life, if you can avoid it.

Now, you may say, it’s easy for me to have this perspective because in many ways I have an enviable life. Which is true, and I don’t want to pretend otherwise. But, you know, Tim Kreider and most of his pals undoubtedly have enviable lives, too; as one interviewer put it to Kreider, “You draw at home and you hang out with friends and drink and stuff, and then, at the end of the week, you produce a cartoon?  And that’s your job… Please allow me to congratulate you on having the best life of all time.” To be very clear about it, anondyne musing about one’s position in life relative to one’s chums is the sport of the privileged, like polo or key parties. The issue in this case isn’t privilege, it’s perspective. It’s one of those enviable problems to have.

Or to put it another way, if you’re really spending time fantasizing about your friends’ lives, and they are equally spending time fantasizing about yours, there’s a good chance both of your lives are, you know, pretty good, and maybe you should focus on that instead. It’s just a thought.

94 Comments on “My Life Is Good But I’m Worried Yours is Better”

  1. I had my twenty year high-school reunion last year and for the most part, it was pretty good. Most people didn’t recognize me and were pretty stunned to see where I was in life. What surprised me the most is that even still, after all these years people still tended to fall into the old cliques. It didn’t bother me that much. Most people at the reunion were generally happy to see everyone else, but it was strange to see all of the various dramas about the one’s who stayed in town.

    It’s interesting to think about what Kreider is saying here…that we’re pretty much defined by this age. However, I’m still finding new things about myself, I realize that I likely have a good chunk of my life left and that there are still things that I want to do, still things that I can experience that can further define me.

    Maybe not define…maybe by this age, it’s just refinement.

  2. That’s funny. I don’t lie awake at night calculating mortgage payments (and I have to do it for two properties.) That takes five minutes. I lie awake at night wondering if starting the college education now that I should have finished in my early twenties ought to be dragged out long enough for my stepson to get into graduate school on grants and scholarships. (Hint: If you gotta pay for your own schooling, chances are, your kid won’t.)

    I don’t look at other 40-somethings’ homes or cars. I don’t look at the trophy wives of the unhappy jocks I went to high school with.

    I pretty much look at my own life, which may not be all that enviable, and say, “Thank God I’m one lucky sonofabitch because I nearly screwed the pooch royal a few times along the way.”

    But then I never bought into keeping up with the Joneses. I have overburdened credit. The Joneses have overlimit credit. One is from paying for life changes on time. The latter is pretending to be wealthier than you are. If I gotta hand over a lot of money to Chase and HSBC, I want something more than a flat screen TV with HD and an iPhone to show for it.

  3. Well, I’m sneaking up on 40 and I don’t envy my friends much. That could be, of course, a result of my incredibly poor choice in friends. I mean, what a bunch of losers!

    I’m totally joking.

  4. Oh great my life is DONE! I am 44 and am not 100% happy with it. That was only partially sarcastic. I think the reality is that we are always wanting more and or better. I suspect that people that earn more just have bigger bills. They wish they made more just like me and just like the people who earn less than I do and are trying to make rent instead of the mortgage. I also think bitching is a symptom of that drive for more and or better. We didn’t come to inhabit every corner of this planet because we were content with where we were. As humans a big percentage of us are wishing for more and many are striving for more. As far as the 40 to 45 age range I think when you get to that age it is a lot harder to consider yourself imortal with lots of time to do things. If I make it 88 I am half way there. That’s a BIG if. So the reality is that I have more life behind me than in front of me. That’s a good reason to second guess all of the choices I have made so far but not a good reason to give up and quit trying. Another gramatically weak ramble by ME! Woot.

  5. At 19 years past the magic “40” number, my big insight is that monumental is over-rated. At 18 I realized I’d never compete in the Olympics, at 24 that I’d never be Miss America, and now, I probably won’t be famous. And that’s just peachy. I also have less reason to envy my more affluent old friends, since they were more blind-sided by the economic freefall thingy than those of us who were operating in full frugal mode already.

    As far as the kids thing goes, once you accept that they are their own selves, not a part of you or even much of a reflection, you can enjoy them. That’s not even to mention grandchildren, who are the best, just the best.

    So, no, I don’t particularly envy my old friends.

  6. Based upon my own life, I find Kreider’s thesis questionable – but I’ve always been a bit of an odd duck, so perhaps my experiences are not typical.

    As a sixty-something male, I can look back over essentially all phases of life and say that I have never been envious of someone else’s life, or fantasized living their life. This is not to say that life has been without stress, and I have certainly had fantasies about life with those stresses removed.

    However, before I was a teenager I had a dream about what I wanted to do with my life – Aerospace Engineer – and I have lived that life. In some ways it has been better than I had hoped – I spent the first eight years of my career on the Apollo program, which no one would have expected to occur when I entered college in 1957 just prior to the first Sputnik.

    I have encountered emotional ups and downs over the years, but I have never been under the illusion that there are other people who never have anything other than sunshine in their lives, so envy of others has never been part of the program for me. Certainly, there have been many times that I have had “what-if” fantasies about things that could have been done better, or mistakes that could have been avoided, but those center around decisions or actions on my part – not envy of others. From my personal viewpoint, it appears that Kreider’s premise is flawed.

    I can see that someone whose career and personal life has been dictated by circumstances beyond their control might not be happy. However, that should not necessarily be synonymous with envy of the life of some other individual, IMO.

  7. About 18 years ago a friend gave me a perspective on this.

    At the time we were housemates, and we were both in the early stages of our careers. It was also at around the time of Michael Jordan’s birthday and I realized that we were both Michael Jordan’s age.

    I made reference to Michael Jordan and what he had done by then (He was about to win the first of six championships, he had won an MVP, rookie of the year and was a perpetual all-star) and asked my friend what he had done with his life.

    He smiled at me and said: I am doing just what Michael Jordan is doing. Michael Jordan always dreamed of being a basketball player and he has achieved the dream. I have always dreamed of being (what my friend did) and I have achieved that dream.

    True that what my friend always wanted to do did not give him the same level of fame of fortune as Michael Jordan, but that is what he wanted to do and he was doing it.

    Good perspective.

    From that metric, I am doing O.K.. I wanted to be a lawyer from the time that I was 12; I am a lawyer. I also am a lawyer that I feel is making a small positive difference in the world. Life is good.

    I agree with high school re-unions. The 20th at mine was the one that had the most attendees. Like many, I was alot heavier than I was at 18.


  8. People don’t just limit their options because of questions of scarcity, such as a lack of time (40+ years old) and money (30 year mortgage). They limit it because they don’t think they’re good enough, and they don’t think they deserve it.

    It seems that very few people make choices based purely on a “what do I really want to do with my life?” point of view.

    And the reason it is so easy to look at someone else’s life and assume that they’re not hampered by scarcity or other self-imposed limitations is because you can’t see those limitations. They’re internally generated.

  9. Well, I’m 45. My best friend & I from childhood have started getting together about once a month for lunch after about 20 years of Christmas cards (sometimes). I’m a successful freelance writer, editor and novelist. He’s a successful owner of a market research company. Sometimes I’m envious because, hey, he makes about 5 times the amount of money I do every year. Then I thought about it and commented to my wife, “You know, the ONLY thing I envy him is the money. I wouldn’t want to be married to his wife, have his kids and their health problems, his family and their mental problems, his employees and all THEIR problems, or much of anything else about his life. But I’d kind of like the money. But I wouldn’t trade for it.”

    On the other hand, he probably thinks that a guy who commutes to his home-office, isn’t responsible for 5 other employees and pretty much only travels on his job when he WANTS to is a pretty lucky guy.

  10. I think I got over it when I started to notice that, no matter how much better my life got, I was always envious of those who had more. When your family brings in six figures, and you’re still saying “if I made that much money, I’d…”, you wouldn’t. Just shut up. You would *not* pay off all your bills, and be able to vacation to far off destinations every year. You would not have new cars every two years like clockwork. Face the facts that more money does not mean more sense on how to spend that money.

    So I look at those around me, and I feel blessed to be where I am, with who I’ve chosen to be there with, and more often than not with a “there but for the grace of the god I don’t believe in, go I…”

  11. I totally agree with this. People are getting weirder and weirder as we get older. I sometimes catch sidelong glances from people checking other people out and I wonder why we didn’t all get over this in jr high.

  12. Actually, I did attend my 20th high school reunion — the only reunion I’ve been to so far. But… it was six years before I started submitting my SF stories to markets. So I guess I hadn’t yet revealed my secret identity as an SF author…

    “Absolute statements aren’t.”

    Dr. Phil

  13. Nice Post.
    Some-times I’ll catch my self being envious of the guy who blows by me on the highway in a brand new 6 series BMW convertible, and my mind will wander, wondering what his life must be like. I drive a honda civic, so it’s not super inspiring, but there are some easy ways out of this trap.

    1. His car is probably nicer to look at from the outside than from the inside, and I get that for free!

    2. I live in a first world nation where I’ve never, ever had to worry about where my next meal was going to come from, or what I was going to do with my free time.

    3. I’m a computer geek, and technology can only become so expensive before the added cost is meaningless. I can build a whoop-ass PC for between 600 and 800 dollars every few years.

    4. The amount of soul the gentleman in the shiny new beamer had to sell to his job and his boss to get to that point probably isn’t worth it for what amounts 100 more horsepower, and somewhat more attractively bent sheet metal.

    So what’s the take away?
    1. Everyone should have such problems!
    2. The key to happiness is to want what you have.

  14. Your life’s set by the choices you’ve made by age 40?

    Uh. Puh-lease.

    No. Seriously. Maybe you need to go talk to some 50 and 60 year olds. Or a few 70 and 80 year olds.

    Damn. This kind of age-centered tunnel vision drives me batty.

  15. I have an enviable life. Wouldn’t trade it with anyone for anything. That doesn’t stop me from complaining mightily about a couple of unresolved issues.

    I’m 36 and 40 is starting to loom. My 20 year high school reunion is in 2 years. I can see how one might start pondering these things.

  16. I’ve always led an interesting life. When I was 39, I gave birth for the last time. A couple of years later, I ejected my last husband. I have interesting jobs, an interesting friend or two, and multiple skills. I suppose all you could have told about me at 40 was that I was overwhelmed with babies and no help; at almost 55, infinite paths still lie before me. In other words, although his thesis is interesting, not everyone is stuck.

  17. Fantastic post. I agree with everything you’ve said except maybe the part about character being set in stone at age 40. Keep an open mind.

    I am not living the life I dreamed of as a younger person, not at all. And I am SOOOOO thankful every day that I did not get what I wished for. Also that I am not getting what I deserve. I can’t imagine being envious of anyone else’s life.

  18. John, it could be argued that the only reason you don’t stay up late worrying about your mortgage and your kid is because she is some kind of super-human cake-making word-writing over-achieving power-house of potential who will ultimately rule the world and set you up with a nice retirement in the Hamptons.

    There should be some kind of program where you can adopt successful 19 year olds. That’s the ticket.

  19. My problem is that my goal as a teenager was too low. I just wanted to have a stable life. I wanted to escape being an uneducated, alcoholic, white trash loser like 95% of my extended family. It turns out that this goal is not really that hard. I’ve even met that goal for my mom. Now I need another goal.

    I don’t find myself envious of my friends. We’re all doing about the same (more-or-less). But I do wonder what would have been if I had set my goals a little higher.

  20. I just turned 40.

    I have 4 businesses bubbling on the middle burner, in fields completely unrelated to what I’m making money in now.

    I am not going to go quietly to my end plodding along doing the same thing I am doing now.

    Even if I don’t succeed with one of those businesses, what I do for a living now (high end IT consultant) requires me to relearn what I’m doing and how I’m doing it with a 4 year halflife. I touch more business and community stuff than your average bear, too.

  21. To paraphrase The Family Man (a Nic Cage movie that has both grown on me with time and grown more irritating);
    Sure, I sometimes envy other people, until I remember that I’m negating everything that I’m certain about in my life: my kids, my wife, my extended family.

  22. But I can only imagine the paralytic terror that must seize my friends with families as they lie awake calculating mortgage payments and college funds and realize that they are locked into their present lives for farther into the future than the mind’s eye can see.

    At 44, I feel the exact opposite. I am finally at a place where I don’t worry about what I am going to do with my life. In the last few years, I’ve been able to see pretty much how my career and family paths will likely go. I don’t “calculate” all that so much as relax in knowing when the mortgage will get paid off, and when the kid will use the college fund that has been set up. Sure, a lot has to do with being in a good financial position, but at 30, it was something I couldn’t have had, not having a house, not knowing how many kids there’d be, not knowing how my career would go.

    I’m happy my life is set at 44, to the extent it can be, because it lets me relax and enjoy the things I enjoy.

    Facebook has meant reconnecting with old friends, and I have little interest in comparing…I am mostly happy to see how people turned out, especially those who turned out better than I’d expected.

    I didn’t bother with my 20th as they wanted $175 just to go to the damn thing and I realized that I was in touch with all the people in my class I gave a damn about anyway.

  23. I call BS on Kreider’s thesis. Take Harvey Milk as a counter-example. He was 40 when he moved to San Francisco for the first time.

    You can remake yourself in your own image any damn time you please.

  24. Interesting Article. I hadn’t looked around to compare myself to my friends since I was in my 20’s. I’m 41 and it is something that never occurs to me. I guess that either makes me the exception that proves the rule or someone that is very happy with my choices.

    I don’t envy anyone for anything, because I know that there is a price to pay for everything and I’ve paid the prices I’m willing to pay to get to my level of satisfaction with my life.

    John, I don’t think I agree with you about being stuck with who you are when you reach 40. I cite Jack McDevitt (author of Seeker and other books) as an example. I don’t think he even started writing until he was in his late 40s and he has done fairly well.

  25. In 2009, I became unemployed, got a divorce, and had to move in with family to simply get by. My 20th reunion was this past Saturday, so yes, I was looking at everyone through rose-colored glasses. On the flip side, my 8th grade crush told me I looked hot, so the night balanced out well… I think part of the difference between pre-20th and and anything that may come after, is that up until say age 40 (I’m 38), you’re defining your life be either what you are accomplishing or what you will do in the future. There’s a lot of “yet” statements when you’re younger: “I’m not married yet”, “I don’t have kids yet”, etc. That’s not to say you don’t set goals later in life, as some have commented above, but a lot of basic choices (which I think is what John is saying in his post) *have* been made. You could be married and divorced but you wouldn’t say “married yet”… The “20th Reunion” point is a fixed point, the decisions and goals you set from here have a lot more basis on decisions you’ve already made, than decisions you make when you’re 18. It was a sad realization that no matter how much I might exercise now, I never will be Batman…

  26. Alexander, et al:

    I don’t think there’s any doubt you can remake your life when you choose. But most people don’t after the age of 40. It’s the difference between anecdotes and general social trends.

  27. “I don’t think there’s any doubt you can remake your life when you choose. But most people don’t after the age of 40.”

    The same people who don’t after 40 are about the same as those who don’t after 35. Or 30. Or, in a fair number of cases, 25. 40 isn’t a magical number of doom. For many it’s a trying time because you’re caught between raising kids and caring for aging parents–causing introspection and a lot of “why me?” But people grow throughout their lives if they chose to. At. Every. Age.

  28. I’m 54 and have accomplished two things in my life: Diddly and Squat.
    Of the few friends I have, most have already accomplished a lot more than I ever will.
    Life sucks.
    And you have to bring this up?
    You, the rotten bastard thet refuses to read my unwritten novel?
    And my daughter who left home to become a Buddist nun is now living with a chain-smoking Jesuit vegan art history major!

    And, Crap! Its Monday too!!!

    Here comes the wife with my Mocha-Prozac(tm) Latte.

    Never mind.

  29. This is the classic optimist vs. pessimist view: is your life-glass half empty or half full? Almost everyone has room to make changes, even at 40, but are you reasonably content or not with the path you took to get where you are now?

    It took me nearly 15 years to get where I am now, and there are several branches in my course I could have taken that would have made major changes. Would I have done anything differently? Perhaps. All thing considered, though, I’m pretty well off. At the minimum DH says, “You’re breathing, which is a long way ahead of people who aren’t.”

  30. AliceB:

    “40 isn’t a magical number of doom.”

    I’m not aware of suggesting it was. I think you’re thinking I’m strident about this, which I’m not. As noted in the entry itself, there’s always room for change at any time. I’m not preaching dogma here. I’m noting statistical likelihoods.

    That being the case, I would be willing to bet that the number of people willing and able and (as important) desiring to change their lives is smaller at 40 than at younger ages, because they generally do have more things going on which are harder to divest themselves of. These can be positive things as well as negative ones.

  31. Hmmm…polo, sure…but I never knew key parties were considered as a sport of the privileged. (But at least I now know why the keys to my 74 Grimlin are always the last ones in the bowl…)

  32. Oh, sure. It’s easy for you to be all optimistic and satisfied; what with a good marriage, awards, talent, and pie! I have none of these. How am I, in these late years, obtain these things?

  33. Fair enough, John. I saw red when I shouldn’t have.

    But consider revisiting the issue in 10 years. Then you can talk about all your friends in their 50s who are saying things like, “You know, I was thinking of doing something different. . .”

  34. As a 20-something, I actually have some slight trepidation of being like that when I’m 40-ish. It’s good to know that not everyone covets his neighbor’s life.
    Although right now, I certainly do look at people who have more money and I dream of being in their shoes and being able to afford a car, maybe even car insurance. A car with a/c and power windows especially.
    Of course, I’m also young and that stuff is much more likely to come in time.

  35. My best friend from High school still lives in my small home town in Nebraska. (population 260) He’s the High School Industrial arts teacher and he’s an Asst. Coach for Football and Girls basketball. His wife, two years younger and a Cheerleader in highschool, owns the best hair salon within 30 miles. Their kids are mostly grown now like mine and are doing OK.

    There have been times that I envy his contentment.

    But then I realize that that his contentment is not mine and that small town wasn’t where I would find it. I left there in 1976 and keep in touch with people as I see fit but have no regrets. Never been to a class reunion either.

    Heck, I’m on my third or forth career path at this point, depending on how you count it.
    Having been in the Navy during the Gulf war,(and getting shot at but not hit) changes your perspective about what’s important also. Even more than simple contentment can acount for.

  36. Scalzi @ 33: I would be willing to bet that the number of people willing and able and desiring to change their lives is smaller at 40 than at younger ages

    Well, I don’t know about you civilians, but for us career active duty military folks most of us go through radical life changes in our mid-40’s – because traditionally that’s when we retire from active duty. Then we have to start our lives all over. New jobs, new skills, new education, new location – everything changes for us.

    So far, I’m enjoying the hell out of it.

  37. Scalzi @33

    “That being the case, I would be willing to bet that the number of people willing and able and (as important) desiring to change their lives is smaller at 40 than at younger ages, because they generally do have more things going on which are harder to divest themselves of.”

    I would venture to say “desire” is the operative word here. At every age, your choices are limited, and I do wish I realized what a huge blank slate life was at 18.

  38. This year I turned 40.

    I got married and adopted my wife’s daughter.

    I have a fine career.

    Life is pretty good and if it stays that way, I’ll die a happy man.

  39. I wonder if this is influenced by region. My totally unfounded assumption is that people who live in New York City (as I am assuming the author of this NY Times article does) are more likely to be, well, concerned about things like one’s place in live compared to one’s friends. I recently went to NY and stayed at a friends place while they were out of town. This was before the bank meltdown. One of my friends was a broker on Wall Street (big money) and the other was also a professional (big money compared to what I make.) They lived in a fifth floor “walk up” that was just a tad under 600 square feet. Neither owned a car. They made tons of money but still had to struggle to afford their pathetic, in my opinion, apartment. I understand COLA (cost of living adjustment) and what it means, but they could have easily found jobs elsewhere & owned a big house with a lovely yard. So why didn’t they move? They weren’t from NY originally, they didn’t have family in NY and lord knows they didn’t have any investments that demanded their physical presence in NY. They readily admit they bought the whole, “…if you can make it there you can make it anywhere,” mystique. I guess the point of my rambling rant is the question; Do certain areas attract certain mindsets and repulse others? Or, more specifically, is NY just more competitive than other cities? Or do I just have questionable taste in friends?

  40. I’m wondering about that age 40 thing… for people with kids, once they’re through college things can really open up. Also, in this day and age people change jobs and careers routinely, whereas 60 years ago it was rare. Then there are things that medical science does that allow options to open up.

    I suspect that it’s somewhat more prevalent for people not to change so much as they get older, but the question is, HOW prevalent?

    Need to ponder this…. Offhand, looking at the people closest to me, I’d say maybe 2/3 don’t change much and 1/3 do.

  41. I sympathize with Krieder’s article a lot. I did not always make the best choices — some due to my own foolishness, some out of desperation and a will to survive — and this kind of article makes me feel less alone in my regrets. I did not feel envy as much as the idea of seeing my “road not taken” played out in others. We all run our own race, but I’d be naive to think that my younger self didn’t at one time hold the baton and is affecting my current time.

  42. “when you see someone at 40, they are who they who they have become and will likely be for the remainder of their time on the planet. I could be wrong on this”

    Christ, I hope you’re wrong.

  43. I recently experienced this first-hand with my 50ish mother-in-law. When husband and I told her we were pregnant (her first grandchild), she immediately called all her friends because, in her words, she had “won”. Many of her friends have children the same age as my husband, but none are married or dating anyone, and none have kids. The icing on the cake was when she called her homosexual brother, not to inform him of the pregnancy, but to try and make him feel bad for having a life partner and no kids. She kept bringing up how he would “never experience this feeling of being a grandparent”. I don’t know, I thought being a kick-ass Great Uncle was a good place in life.

    It made me incredibly sad to see how wrapped up she was in comparing herself to others rather than just enjoying her life for what it is. Instead, she had to put down everyone else to justify her life choices. Sure, I compare myself to my friends, but I don’t usually see anyone as ‘losing’ unless they’re still living in their parent’s basement.

  44. I’ve missed all my high school and college reunions so far, on the grounds that I’m in touch with the only people I’d much care about seeing again. The next big one coming up will be my college 50th, in 2012, and although I used to say that would be the first one I would attend, chances are I’ll skip that one too (assuming I’m still around to make the choice).

  45. An interesting topic,

    I sort of dealt with it not long after I turned 32. I gave up a corporate job with a future, so I could return to university. My parents thought I was nuts, but half way into my first semester they did remark they had not seen me so relaxed and happy in a very long time. Ending up working in libraries was my goal and while it ended up somewhat different, I do like my work in a library. It is rather cerebral, but I like it.

    My high school reunion had no appeal and I did not go to the 20th reunion. I see no one from high school, nor feel any urge to change that. I came out as a teenager, and most of my gay friends from that time are now long gone. Almost everyone who was at my twentieth birthday party is now dead, and I was the second oldest person at the party. At my age of 50, it seems like they were horribly short-changed. My late friends fought hard to survive. I firmly believe that they would tell me to “live”, and savour it as best I can.

    The last 18 years have been pretty good. I do things I want to do, I spend it with people who matter to me. I care for aging parents because they loved me so deeply, that naturally it is returned to them. At times there seems too few minutes in the day, but I do try to stop and savour the moments. There have been some nasty bumps in those 18 years, but I got through it.

    I may remake part of my life if the training in investments I currently study pays off. But even without that, life would be good.

    I have not bought a red convertible sports car, nor have I bought garish clothing. I do not want to date teenagers. My grey hairs seem irrelevant; after all, I still have hair to turn grey. My advice would be the same as my late friends, “live”, you only have this one perhaps, make it count. Savour life. Spend time with your spouse, kids, family and friends – it can be gone tomorrow.

    And read your favourite authors!

  46. When you look at your friends’ lives, or indeed anyone’s lives, such as those of celebrities, you can mentally cherrypick the best bits from a multitude of choices – I like his house, but I like the location of her house better, I like their car but I like those other people’s kids, I like his wife but couldn’t bear his job. Given that we could perhaps all build a virtual perfect fantasy life from bits of other people’s, I suppose it is surprising there isn’t more envious dissatisfaction going round. But I should think most people in fact realise that they would not really want to swap places with just one other person, as in those Wife Swap TV shows. (Besides, even if a life looks idyllic from the outside I should think most people suspect that there are all sorts of hidden traumas).

    On the subject of your life-path getting, if not fixed, at least more defined, has anyone seen the Up Series on TV? It started with Seven-Up in 1964 with a bunch of British seven year olds, and then revisited them every seven years (for 14-Up, 21-Up and so on). I remember thinking, over the years as it came out, that as kids they were generally curious, exuberant, energetic, and with lots of ideas about what they were going to do, and by 28-Up they were still doing new stuff or thinking of doing something different.

    But 35-Up found most of them (not all) doing much the same in life and work as they had been at 28, just older, and 42-Up again, and 49-Up too. I’m a couple of years younger than these people so their experience of the political and cultural world-at-large largely matches mine, which makes it a bit more salutary and poignant for me. As kids they were fizzing with ideas about all the paths they could take – but as adults most of them were well aware of the paths not taken. (Of course, one problem with a series like that is that the participants are also well aware that in seven years Michael Apted and a film crew are going to come along and pry into their lives; that maybe affects what they think they ought to be doing, and affects the kind of protective shells they build when they talk about themselves).

  47. I just read the article. Author seems to have a high opinion of himself and his lifestyle:

    “The obscene wealth of free time at my command must’ve seemed unimaginably exotic to [my friends with kids], since their next thousand Saturdays are already booked.”

    Guess what? Leisure time isn’t all there is to life. That’s fine if he doesn’t want kids, but I really doubt his friends with kids are all insanely jealous of him.

  48. Dammit. Still waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, “I want to be a roofer like you.” Sniff. No one envies me :(.

    I do know one thing–falling off a roof at 45 hurts like hell.

  49. QT@50: As a father, I sometimes miss the freedom of my single days, but it’s not something I’d even remotely consider changing. If I could have something that I had when I was 25, it’d be my 25 year old body, not my 25 year old single guy free time.

    In regards to freedom to change…I don’t think it’s that you can’t change direction after you hit 40…I think it’s more that by the time most people have hit their forties they’ve found a place in life they are comfortable with. Not everyone, of course, exceptions always abound, but in general by the time most people are forty they’ve figured out what they will do when they grow up.

  50. As yet another 40ish person w/kids and a mortgage, I’m just now really opening my mind to all the possibilities I still have in life — without losing sight of my responsibilities. Any lack of freedom anyone feels is really just an attitudanal thing.

  51. I have to agree with Steve @52, it’s not that you can’t change, it’s whether you want to change. I went back to school at 48 to change the career path. It seems to be working out so far.

    I don’t think I’ve grown up yet though.
    If you asked my wife and kids, they’d tell you I haven’t 8D

  52. #42: you told us what you think of your friends’ 600 square foot, no car lifestyle. But what counts is what THEY think of it. Do they seem happy?

    I went to a five-year reunion. Since I was sober, not divorced, no kids, and making my living doing what I wanted I felt at first that I was winning. But then I realized there was no ‘winning’ because none of us were in that context any more. A and B weren’t going to stand at their lockers going “she turned out better than I’d expected” because they no longer have lockers. I haven’t been to any of the later reunions nor wanted to.

  53. I’m almost 40 myself, going through a bit of a career refocus, and while I’m not worried about missing a meal or a mortgage payment, things are a damned sight tighter around here than they were a year ago. That said, I’ve got a lot of friends who are very successful indeed (partners at lots of different law firms, a NYT best-selling authoress, big wig political mukity-muks) and each time I get a case of this I always ask myself: would I trade my career with them, if it meant BEING them? Never have I said yes. Of course, I couldn’t do anything about it if I ever did say “yes” but it always forces me to answer the question in a me-affirming way.

  54. nisleib@42: re: your friends in NYC with tiny apartments – You can fall in love with a city. You can not care about square footage. You might be willing to trade a yard for Central Park (or Golden Gate Park or whatever). You might be willing to trade suburbia for corner stores, art galleries, concert halls, clubs, and a vibrant street life. Might not be YOUR thing, but it’s some people’s thing.


    People also often do the opposite comparison: feeling happy about their choices because they were THEIR choices. I’m pretty certain my friends and family like their lives–I like mine better, because it’s MINE. They like theirs better because it’s THEIRS.

  55. Um, uh, is this, like, mandatory or something? ‘Cause if it is, I may have 35 years or so of angst to make up.

    I really am just making this life up at random. My method has worked out OK so far. I’ve never even thought about the entire subject. I’d never lie awake calculating mortgage payments. That’s what spreadsheets and/or calculators are for. All these people in the queue ahead of me really seem to worry about this stuff, maybe I should. … Nah!

    Jack Tingle

  56. When I was 40, my wife and I were expecting our first child. Since then, I’ve changed jobs more than once, moved across the country, watched my wife have another child, and started my own consulting business while working full-time in the corporate world. My income increased steadily in my forties until last year, when I voluntarily took a 25% pay cut to work the job I wanted to work (and reduce my travel time away from the family).

    My 30th high school reunion is in two weeks, at the Queen Mary. Some of my classmates are doctors or attorneys. One became a dectective for the local PD, and is already looking at retirement. None of that affects my happiness.

    If I’ve learned anything in the past 48 years (which is I admit open to question), it’s that I don’t define myself by external factors such as my job or my income. I have a family I love, live in a nice area, and have sufficient income to pretty much let us do what we want. Plus we have enough discretionary income to permit lots of book-buying. Any more than that is somebody else’s idea of success, not mine.

    I don’t know where I’ll be in 10 years, but I’m not particularly stressed over it.

  57. Some people feel such pressure to know what they are going to do with their lives, and then spend the rest of their time trying to measure by a yardstick that may prove false. Although some people (like Andrew @7’s friend) really do know exactly what they want from a young age, I suspect that the rest of us go through iterations and permutations – riffing on the themes of ourselves, if you will.

    The older I’ve gotten, the less I’ve felt that I had to do everything perfectly or that I needed to have a specific ending point (that seems rather predetermined and not something that I have a lot of control over.) My point now is to try to do what I do as well as I can, of course, but also to enjoy the ride rather than stressing out about the bumps. And, given that it’s my ride, envying that of my friends just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    The therapist in me suspects that this is more of a commentary on Kreider and his friends than on 40-somethings in general.

  58. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have SOME regrets…but for the most part, I’m pretty damn content with my portion of fame and fortune….

  59. When I was 18 years old, I honestly thought I’d be dead before I reached the age of 30. Yet here I am at the age of 35, I own a house and I have a job I love doing. So I’ve got no reason to be envious about the lives of my friends, and every reason to be grateful for the life I have right now.

  60. If you don’t have a few regrets, you’ve never really ‘lived.’ That said, I am blessed with being one of the youngest of the cousins on both sides of the families. When I got over a health scare at 40, (nearly lost my one seeing eye – and as an astronomer that’s huge) my cousins said that the 50s were so MUCH better. Hah, then I had something to look forward to!

    People around me said, when I opened my bookstore at 42, that I was brave. I didn’t really get that. People start businesses all the time, on less background homework than I’ve done. It doesn’t take bravery to change your career and life, it takes energy to overcome inertia. Sometimes the push comes from retirement (a hats off to our colleagues in the armed forces!) or a layoff. Sometimes it’s the death of a loved one. Whatever the reason, it’s better to try something and fail than to dwell on what-might-have-beens and grow bitter.

  61. I went to my 10 year and 20 year high school reunions and it was odd how apologetic some people seemed to be about having stable jobs and starting families. I suppose my petty revenge at those events (particularly the 10 year) was talking about the poetry I’d had published, the CD I sang on, the photographs I posed for, the rock bands I’d made friends with and so on.

    Generally, though, comparing myself to other people only makes me feel like crap, so I try to avoid doing it. Even if I try to console myself with the notion that I’m doing ‘better’ in some way than someone, that just sets me up for a fall when someone else comes along who’s doing even better than I am.

    Sometimes I still have to restrain myself from self-flagellation about Where I Should Be By Now–I have a novel published by now, I should be famous by now, I should be married by now, I should have kids by now. None of these are the case. But in my better moods, I realize that my life is under no obligation to fit to anyone’s expectations but my own.

  62. I dunno. At 40, I was fat and relatively out of shape. At 52, I’m 50 lbs smaller and a gym rat. There are things that are constants in my life (I’ve been in the same career for 30 years, and with one employer for over 15 years, but doing different things with them). However, I hope that I’ll be continually remaking myself in one way or another until there aren’t any parts left to move or think with. For example, right now, I’m exploring writing as a career change, and no, I won’t ask you to read any of it.

    What spawned this rant was the line:

    Essentially, at 40 or so, you’ve become who you are going to be for the rest of your life.

    which I do not believe and gladly so. Good thing, because if I really took that statement to heart and if there were also guns in the house right now, I might be tempted to decorate one of the walls with my brains (not to worry – I don’t believe that I stopped growing and changing at 40).

  63. Waitasec: a New York Times piece about navel-gazing, angsty middle-aged people that pretends the writer’s passing thoughts are clearly a Sweeping New Trend?

    I would never have seen that coming!

    But it really sounds like he’s reading things into his friends that aren’t there – why, they must envy my single, carefree life! I imagine if he were married with kids, he’d be telling us his single friends hang on his every domestic-bliss, cute-baby-story word with pathetic desperation.

    Me, I’m busier than a one-tentacled squid in a blue-whale-squeezing contest; I don’t have time, much less inclination, to sit around and gawp angstily at my friends’ lives.

  64. Dear Mr. Kreider;

    I’ll be 40 next year. All my friends have careers, live where they want to, are are relatively happy and have perfect lives. I’m a stay-at-home dad with no skills or prospects surrounded by depression and a difficult relationship.

    Which train do I jump in front of?

    Thanks for your help.


  65. I have the same gut reaction as many other over-40 folks to the idea that life is fixed at 40. Life seems as open to new possibilities as ever. I’ve made lots of gut-wrenching changes over the last 10 years. There is no sign that challenges will slow down any time soon.

    But I have to admit there is something to the assertion. When I think back to my 20’s and 30’s, I was more ambitious in terms of career and position. My ambition was fuelled by insecurity leading to a large amount of stress and unhappiness. My accomplishments were never enough.

    In my late 40’s, I’m much more comfortable about who I am. I’m not out to prove anything with my career. As a consequence I’m unlikely to make any big changes. I’m currently focusing on my health and fitness. In my 30’s it would have been in hopes of looking better. Now, it’s about feeling better, having some fun, and paving the way for a more active and healthy 40 years to come.

    I suspect I’m not unique in this shift away from drive and ambition. I wouldn’t want to go back to all that stress and unhappiness. It’s a huge relief to accept that you’re not the center of the universe. If I get rich or famous from here, it will be completely by accident.

  66. I have really enjoyed the comments thread on this article and there are a lot more well balanced thoughtful people than we sometinmes give ourselves credit for. I did not get to this country until I was 37 and then had six jobs in 6 years. So at 43, I felt like as failure with no money, no prospects, a mortgage but thankfully a supportive family. The whole point in coming here was to have the challenges and opportunities not available elsewhere. I worked as a consultant for a number of years and slowly rebuilt my career and finances. At 49 I started my first business with my wife and since then I have started three more businesses. All are struggling especially in this economy, but when things turn around, they will all be poised to succeed and give me excitement and challenges for many years if I can stay healthy. So here I am 54, when a generation ago I would have been drifting towards a defined benefit pension plan retirement, still rolling the dice and feeling more energized than I did twenty years ago. But that’s me – it’s not for everyone. if you are happy with what you are doing, I am thrilled for you. If you want to start again, being 40 does not matter – Heck 50 does not matter. As I have discovered, massive, concentrated action can cut timeframes really short. As the slogan says “Just do it!”

  67. At the ‘old age’ of 39 I’m stuck in a nowhere career making okay money. At least I still have all my hair!

    I’m considerably better off financially than my friends but that certainly didn’t buy happiness – I’m one of the few that actually has a college degree and a job (which is getting scarce in Michigan).

  68. I went to my 20th reunion last year and it still bother’s me that even the most difficult people to get along with don’t have the same difficulty I do in keeping good housekeeping staff for the yacht.

    Some people just have everything handed to them, while I have to wonder all day if my napkin will be folded correctly or not.

  69. Well, I guess I must be in the minority… I do sort of understand the point. The 20th was the point where everyone is what their actions led them to be.

    I have a huge amount of regret over it. I turned from a path (more of a calling) for a woman. We’re still married lo these many years later, but though I make 6 figures and am comfortable, I would give anything to have chosen the different path.

    It would have meant hardship, danger, possibly death… but it also would have had meaning.

    And perhaps that’s what the real separator here is… those that envy other peoples lives is because they see no real meaning in their own existence. If I were snuffed out this afternoon, the only people that would miss me are the wife and possibly our dog.

    So with regards to it’s a wonderful life… no man is a failure who has friends… I guess, I’m no Jimmy Stewart…

  70. I have this one freind with a huge front yard, new roof, only one kid, cars are paid for, makes significantly more than I do, and gets to work in his PJ’s in a book-laden office in his own house. He even gets expense paid trips to interesting locales to hang out with celebrities several times a year.

    And 40,000 stinking people read his blog every day, too!

  71. Did I mention is tough, smart wife and that his kid has had her sci-fi works read to an audience of thousands by a hugo winning author?

    The man is truly dispicable.

  72. I think the secret to one’s happiness, lies in the means of the ratio. If you do the math, someone who is earning 25K a year, and manages their life more optimally, is far richer than someone else who earns 100K a year, but is doing nothing more than paying off 10X as much. It all boils down to how much spending-money do you end up with in your pocket at the end of the day. And I’m not trying to imply that “money = happiness”, just using that as an example. Money, after all, is the standard by which we get things done, in this life. Making it, and spending it.

  73. Perhaps the reason that the grass is greener on the other side is that they take better care of it?

  74. Shaun@78: I think Dickens said it best in terms of money and happiness:

    Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.

  75. I get wound up inside as much as the next guy when it comes to considering “all the stuff I don’t have” that others do.

    But ya know what? It’s just stuff. In 50 years from now, no one will remember how fancy your car was or how many expensive trips you took every year.

    The fanciest $500 restaurant meal doesn’t taste any better to me than a good Philly cheesesteak. When I jump in my pool and then lay in the warm sun, it feels every bit as good as it does to some billionaire.

    My wife loves me, my kids are healthy, smart and well adjusted. My house is nice. I work for myself and make my own hours. What more could a man ask for in life?

    I don’t make a lot of money but I don’t really miss it. The American work ethic has imparted a sense of shame on me that I am not more industrious, that I do not kill myself for more, more, more.

    But I am comfortable in the fact that I will never be rich, never be famous and never change the world. It’s okay.

  76. Someone told me a couple of years ago at a wedding reception that age 43 is when you become wise. I haven’t seen that happen to me yet, but I have made a lot of changes starting in my late 30s that have let me be more “me”.

    At almost 44, I fully plan to keep trying new things and experimenting with my life. I don’t expect to change who I am, but I do expect to find lots of new ways to express who I am (and with more confidence). Like one of the commenters above said, it doesn’t really take much money or time to try out most anything.

    I think that the pre-40 time is actually tougher because most of us are still plodding along a path that we started after college and were encouraged to stay on by every company that hired us. The 40-ish transition is tough because we come face-to-face with who we really are (and aren’t) – but it’s also liberating for the same reason.

    So have hope all of you in your 20s and 30s – there is still fun on the other side of 40!

    – Allan

  77. Age 49, let’s see what’s in the inventory…

    At age 5, I almost died. Every day since then has been A Gift.

    I have the career I decided I wanted when I was age 8 (Software Master Craftsman). Running my own consulting business with one of my proteges, charging top rates, yet turning business away, providing employment for a couple dozen of the best engineers in the area.

    My wife turned out to be an excellent choice – great mother, great companion, great partner, my best friend. Has her own career with a large multinational, where she is a “highly compensated employee” (their term, not mine). She looks better than she did when we married, and still fits in her wedding dress.

    We have a fine house. No long term debt, beyond the soon-to-be-paid-off mortgage.

    Our investments return more than we earn in salary.

    Two kids in college, the rest of them off pursuing their own interests. None of them needing (or wanting) handouts from the parents.

    Grandkids looking like a possibility, very soon now.

    Good toys to play with. Good friends to meet with. A nice wine cellar to enjoy.

    I envy no one, as my wife and I did it all ourselves.

    Yep, I’ll die happy.

  78. “I envy no one, as my wife and I did it all ourselves.”

    Really? No good fortune along the way? You were born in abject poverty, got a dread disease, were in a serious accident, you were robbed, one of your kids was born with a serious disability and everything was still turned out great?

    It’s only the stupidity the modern world that leads people to think they are in good shape because they are smart and able–winners at the “game” of life. In a wiser age people knew they were mostly fortunate and gave thanks to a higher power than their own ego.


  79. I read Kreider’s post last week and I didn’t think it was pessimistic or fatalist. I thought it was honest and candid. The issues that percolate with mid-life awareness are complex and multi-layered – not so simply navigated. He put it all out there, rather elegantly.

    Just because we think, from time to time, about the paths not chosen doesn’t mean we want to take them. I suppose navel gazing to some might be thoughtful self-awareness or introspection to another. It’s good for the soul, now and then.

  80. The only effect that being 40+ has had on me is to reinforce my interest in and support for the development of the SENS anti-aging therapies.

    I refuse to buy into the defeatist world-view that the aging process cannot be defeated.

  81. Good lord. I hope what you said isn’t true. If it is, I should put a gun to my head now and just be done with it.

  82. I was 40 when I began medical school. I’m 45 now. Twenty five years ago I was a drunk frat boy with bad grades. Twenty years ago I worked in DC as a briefcase holder for a well-known politician. Ten years ago I was a successful but unhappy corporate executive in NY. This year I finished med school and am working as an MD about 10 minutes from a beach. Somewhere along the way I got married and two awesome kids. I’ve always been amazed at what life will let you get away with if you ignore convention and act like you know what you’re doing. Life’s not easy, but sometimes it’s fun.

  83. I was feeling bad about things I’ve missed out on over the past few years and worried about being shut out of careers that I was interested in. Reading these comments makes me feel better, at 23 I guess I still have time to change my path.

  84. i’m 54,have a strange wart on my inner thigh that receives broadcast transmissions,i own a jack russell terrier that died last year,i gave birth to twins last fall..and i’m a my leg caught in a pencil sharpener at work so one leg is now shorter than the others and my baby does the hanky panky./

    but i’m happy.

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