It was a rare get-together with some of our oldest friends: women who'd known each other since university, blokes who'd been best men at each other's weddings. The people with whom we've shared grotty flats, grottier hangovers and soul-bonding, white-knuckle medical emergencies. Our house looked beautiful, the food and wine were superb. But at the end of the evening, my husband Jack (not his real name for reasons that will become clear) and I looked at each other and said the same thing: "Jesus, when did our friends get so bloody boring?"
Rather than conversation, we’d had a series of whingeing monologues, each person moaning about his or her job.
Nobody asked any questions, nobody complimented us on the meal, nobody commented on my recent promotion. We'd both lost weight thanks to regular gym visits since we'd last seen this crowd and were, I thought, looking pretty good for our age. Did anyone mention it? Did they hell. Did anyone even notice? I actually doubt it.
Every couple brought a bottle of ordinary wine and drank two bottles of our nicer stuff. Everyone complained about the traffic or public transport until I could feel my eyes glazing over and Jack did that shooting-himself-in-the-mouth mime behind their backs. And when everyone came to leave, we knew the likelihood of any return invitations was small.
A good thing, on balance. Because, as we tidied up, we realised that disappointment had become the rule, not the exception, when socialising with our contemporaries. This was just the latest in a series of dinners or nights out with friends where, together or singly, we felt we were performing like dancing bears for an indifferent audience. At least we know where we are with our friends. They always let us down.
This dinner was a textbook case. Rather than conversation, we'd had a series of whingeing monologues, each person moaning about his or her job, the state of their downstairs bathroom (not a euphemism, I'm afraid – that would have been interesting), or the impossibility of ever retiring on the various bits of string and old coppers that constitute our pensions. There was also an undertow of sniping about millennials – their craft beer and their sexting and their sense of entitlement.
Now we're all (just) in our 50s, our children have, thankfully, gone from being a source of fiercely competitive bragging to become the subject of shared, mild disappointment, about which the less said the better.
But the hole left by parental pride hasn't been filled with anything new. Everyone has the same boring pastimes. The women do Pilates. The men go riding up and down the same hill every weekend on ridiculously expensive bicycles, in expensive, ridiculous clothes. That's their lives.
It's not totally to do with age. We're all facebooked up the wazoo, thank you very much, and we know which Instagram filter best suits a Tuscan sunset. We know about transgenderism and Bitcoin (at least we think we do). But despite having disposable income, and free time now their kids are older, our friends don't do anything.
They don't go to galleries or the cinema or gigs, the way we all used to, and the way Jack and I still do. They don't go on exciting holidays any more.
Over dinner, we tried to mention our planned trip to Laos, but were talked over by two friends banging on about the holiday home they've visited for three weeks every summer for 25 years. (It stands empty the rest of the time and they have never offered it to any of us. Even for a market rent. Even after the heaviest of hints.)
Although there has been only a small number of divorces among the couples we know, few seem to keep the romance alive. I'm not talking about the torrid couplings of early dates (who has the energy for that?), but our friends just don't seem to fancy each other any more.
When there is (publicly appropriate) physical contact between them, it's like watching someone stroke the worn finial of a banister newel post.
Anyway, as we started the dishwasher, Jack had to stop me going on Facebook, sacking our entire circle of acquaintances and announcing that we were soliciting applications from younger, more interesting friends.
Because we know what we are missing. We work in fields – me in journalism, Jack in design – that keep us in contact with 20- and 30-somethings, who, despite their reputation, seem more dynamic, engaged and alive than our generation.
They all earn next to nothing so they are naturally entrepreneurial: they run club nights, make organic baby food for farmers' markets or monetise their social-media feeds. They can't afford houses or cars or pensions, so they blow whatever cash they have on once-in-a-lifetime holidays or experiences.
One young 30-something I work with organises a regatta of inflatable dinghies every summer. She and her friends are also working their way through an alphabetical list of the world's cuisines. They've tried Congolese and Israeli and are planning what to do when they hit "Q".
This is what Jack and I want from our friends – a sense of fun and adventure from people whose prospects might be limited but whose ambition is all the greater for that. And fortunately, these younger friends don't seem to mind hanging out with us.
We have to be careful, of course. The generational difference has to be acknowledged, even if it isn't respected. We mustn't try to match them drink for drink, stay too late or pretend to get all their cultural references. Equally, we mustn't try to impart any "wisdom" or begin any sentence with the phrase "When I was your age …"
I like to think we appreciate our younger friends for who they are, and they do the same for us. The dinner parties we've had with them have been a scream: they sing for their supper, conversationally and intellectually, and rather than indifferent wine they'll bring something interesting. A loaf of Turkish bread, for instance, or a vintage cookbook scored at a charity shop.
They keep us engaged, lively, young. As for our old, boring friends, we might try mixing them in with the youngsters to see if that jerks them into life. Otherwise, they're fired.
Stella Magazine, The Sunday Telegraph (UK)
YOU KNOW YOUR FRIENDS ARE TOO DULL FOR YOU WHEN…
- They never organise social events, and when you’ve had them over for dinner for the umpteenth time they say, “Let’s not leave it so long next time.”
- They use the phrase “Looks like we’re due for a bit of a cold snap.”
- They indulge in conversations about fuel efficiency in a car.
- They say “and the other thing I’ve been doing recently” when you’ve deliberately left a gap in the conversation to see if they’ll then ask you a question.
- They start getting closer to their parents’ politics than their children’s.
- They know the difference between taupe and wenge when decorating.
- They’ve forgotten your last two promotions/jobs/marriages.
- They regularly check up to see how much more their house is currently worth than when they bought it.
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