Never has Henry David Thoreau's quote about “the mass of men” leading lives of “quiet desperation” seemed so apposite. Today is International Men's Day, a yearly opportunity to highlight the challenges and inequalities that men face – and I’m struck by the thought that we’ve never needed it more than now. All around me, I see Covid and its lockdown pushing men to breaking point, exposing us to forces that threaten our work, our families and our sense of who we are in the modern world. How can we cope with the longstanding male malaise when it’s amplified by such powerful, pandemic forces?
In truth, men weren’t in a great position before Covid hit. Yes, there will be the usual carping about today – that every day is International Men’s Day – but you only need to look at the suicide statistics in England and Wales to see that all was not right for 21st Century Man. Data from the Office for National Statistics found that the male suicide rate in 2019 was the highest in two decades, with men accounting for roughly three-quarters of the 5,691 suicides registered in 2019 (4,303 compared with 1,388 women). Men aged 45-49 were found to be at the highest risk, leading to the ONS to theorise that it “might be because this group is more likely to be affected by economic adversity, alcoholism and isolation”.
Economic adversity and isolation? You can see where this is going. As The Samaritans chief executive Ruth Sutherland put it: “With the impact of the pandemic this year taking a huge toll on people’s mental wellbeing, we should be even more concerned. Many callers have been worried about losing their job and/or business and their finances, with common themes around not being able to pay rent/mortgage, inability to support the family, and fear of homelessness.”
Already, the pandemic has permanently altered our relationship with the working world. It almost goes without saying that we’re fearful of redundancy – but there’s also been a subtler shift that has divested us of so much that we thought central to our existence. Men are no longer needed to travel to the office – we’re at home, embracing family life while simultaneously missing the release of the commute or a working lunch; the self-definition of a life outside the house. The “primary provider” instinct hardwired into men's DNA is being challenged like never before.
How are we reacting? If the middle-aged men around me are anything to go by, then the answer is exactly what you’d expect: with a mixture of confusion, anger, impetuousness, feelings of betrayal, sadness – the hallmarks of deep existential worry. I know men who have sought solace in overeating, alcohol, or porn. I have a friend who’s blown his life savings on a sports car; another who’s given up his day job to write a novel he still hasn’t started. One married friend in his 40s told me how lockdown had awakened a hitherto suppressed promiscuity, leading to a string of Tinder dalliances with younger women: “I wanted to remember what it felt like to be alive” he said, mournfully. Personally, I’ve managed to avoid the more cliched tropes of the male midlife lockdown-breakdown – but I’ve still found myself awake at 4am, worrying about my place in this new and threatening Covid world.
So, what can we do about it? How can middle-aged men like me fight back against the malaise we’re feeling?
It’s a question I turned to while researching my new book The Seven Ages of Man – How to Live a Meaningful Life and the starting point, inevitably, is work. Men are obsessed by work: we habitually define ourselves by what we do, rather than who we are; and because we’re naturally competitive, we can’t help but compare ourselves to others. More often than not, it’s to our detriment.
A good example of this is what I call Busyness Derangement Syndrome. How many times have you heard a male friend lament (or is it boast?) of the long hours he works? He wants you to know that he’s needed in the world; that he’s sacrificing himself for the noble cause of work. Perhaps, in an evolutionary sense, that’s understandable – but who, in the cold light of day, wants to judge their worth by how exhausted they feel at the end of the day?
Here, lockdown provides us with an opportunity. Many men latch onto the busyness bug so we don’t have to think about deeper, more existential questions. If lockdown is giving you empty days, then now is the moment to ruminate on how you might lead a more meaningful existence.
It’s something I’m trying to embrace: I take time out of my day to gaze off into the middle distance, to escape the busyness bug. It’s not an instant cure – I still have those 4am moments, where I worry about my place in the world and the alienation that comes with aging – but at least it gives me space to observe the thought processes I can fall prey to. My distance gazing helps me to see midlife a bit like puberty without the spots: a stage we all go through, where feelings of sadness and anger and confusion are only natural. In time, they’ll pass.
It's important to remember that even when the world appears to be spinning off its axis, things are rarely as bad as they seem. Stay grounded, foster deep connections, show gratitude, moral courage, humility and forgiveness. And however desperate you may quietly feel, remember there are others you can help, who can also help you.
How to live a (more) meaningful midlife – James Innes-Smith's ten point guide
Try not to be defined by your work and don’t allow yourself to become embittered by disappointments
Be aware of your changing physiology
Take pride in your appearance
Try not to let disillusionment turn to rage
Take things as they come and keep it simple
Most of us feel we haven’t achieved enough so don’t berate yourself if life hasn’t turned out the way you planned.
Don’t let yourself go physically or mentally
Maintain a healthy sex life and don’t be afraid to seek medical help if things stop working
Nurture close friendships and put other people's needs before your own
Laugh at life's absurdities, observe your own silly pomposities and try not to take yourself too seriously.
The Seven Ages of Man – How to Live a Meaningful Life by James Innes-Smith (Little, Brown). Buy now for £16.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514