It’s the eve of my best friend’s 50th birthday party and I was trying to recap her 40th and 30th for Mr Z, who didn’t know me back then and was just Mr Himself. For her 30th, her boyfriend did a “J gallery” across every wall – a pictorial chronology with salty captions about why her camera face is a look of unending dread. For her 40th, he did a Museum of J, with incredible glass cabinets that he built himself, full of school reports and Walkmans and whatnot. I wondered aloud what he could possibly do for her 50th that would match all that – maybe borrow a rib from each of their daughters and get it turned into a diamond? I thought I saw a shadow cross Mr Z’s face, that unmistakable look of: “Mr J consistently tries too hard, which is making the rest of us look bad.”
You can take a landmark birthday seriously or you can call it “just a number” while underneath taking it seriously, or you can genuinely believe that it’s just a number and the real crises of purpose and mortality occur at weird times, like 37 and a half. But you cannot deny that each landmark birthday party has its own special flavour.
Twentieths don’t really count, since they are flanked by 18ths and 21sts, and peopled by young idiots who don’t know how to drink and can’t really modulate between a landmark and a Wednesday. Thirtieths are marked by bitter rivalries; in any given friendship group, there are always some people who have hit their metrics, apparently effortlessly. They are in their cohabiting relationship, maybe they have a baby already; whatever job they have, there are brackets in the title. Then there are people who are miles from their metrics. They are sofa-surfing, heartbroken again, still trying to decide between being a poet and a data processor. Never mind missed deadlines – it feels like it would take the intervention of sci-fi, some kind of portal, to get them back on course. What is surprising is who is envying whom. The sorted people are wondering whether they really did get a first-mover advantage, or merely elongated the uneventful years. The chaotic ones have much bigger problems than whether or not they will ever live somewhere with a tumble drier. They are balancing which is the greater disaster between a CCJ and an STI. They would no more be jealous of settled friends than I would envy the Duchess of Cambridge’s hair.
By the 40ths, everyone has realised that metrics were bullshit, that the ineffable quality of human happiness cannot be plotted with a list of life goals. There’s something quite levelling about this decade, in which the best-laid plans come undone and the worst-planned fiasco seems to be working. Easily the most pressing social duty is to stay awake. People at 40ths will do anything – drink anything, play any kind of party game, start fights or reconcile with nemeses – to remain conscious.
Fiftieths are marked by a kind of uncomprehending wonder. It’s true of every age that seven years before it, you think, “Why would anyone be enjoying themselves, at that age? Wouldn’t they just be at home, wishing they were still 23/33/43?” But you can creep right up to 50, thinking, “Huh, I did not expect to be here. I didn’t expect to be standing upright, wearing clothes I think are nice, with teeth, and a face. I definitely was not anticipating this fractal experience of talking to my friend’s kid, and her being the same age as my friend was when we first met, and that seeming perfectly normal. I didn’t expect to still like lager.” I don’t know what alternative scenario I was holding in my head, whether it was living off-grid, dressed in string, or having somehow become a lord, and replaced all my friends with other lords. And put like that, it sounds crazy, but come on – it is reasonable to think that looking forward to your best friend’s birthday is something you will grow out of. It turns out that birthdays never get old.
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist