Michael Gove and my midlife crisis

October 1, 2009 by
Filed under: Politics, Public policy, The RSA 

I’m feeling a bit racked off at the moment. To be honest, I’ve been feeling a bit off colour for about a decade. I put it down to my age. Surveys of contentment over the lifecycle consistently show people over 55 as the happiest, those under 30 next and the middle aged the most miserable. ‘But why’ I hear my reader ask?

A few years ago, Dan Gilbert’s wonderful book ‘Stumbling on happiness’ (the book that got me into thinking about brains and behaviour) summarised research showing we humans are bad not only at predicting what will make us happy, but even at accurately recalling how past events made us feel. Bear in mind also the evidence that we consistently exaggerate our own qualities, so, for example, 90% of motorists will say that they are ‘above average’ in their driving abilities. Then there is a type of attribution effect whereby we put down our own qualities to our inherent strengths and our failings to circumstance, but tend to do just the reverse with other people.  

My theory for the lifecycle contentment valley relates to the power of self delusion. When we are young, those of us who are reasonably undamaged are very receptive to all the ways we are inclined to think we are wonderful and are bound to succeed. In middle age we are starting to see through the tricks performed by our brains; the way we are inclined to think of ourselves keeps bashing against the reality of the mistakes we’ve made, the ambitions unfulfilled. It’s very uncomfortable. Some people get depressed (more often women); some become angry and misanthropic (more often men).

Then, when older age dawns, we start to get over it. In the end what does it matter how successful we are in our jobs? There’s not much point being vain when time’s gravity is dragging down your skin, plucking your hair, and tricking your memory. What matters then are more prosaic comforts: family, food, warmth, and for the most blessed, a nice garden to tend.

What’s this got to do with Michael Gove? It’s not just that I don’t like being older than most ‘senior’ politicians. Several weeks ago, after he had spoken here at the RSA, I wrote a post asking Michael seven questions about Conservative schools policy, particularly concerning the curriculum. He promised to reply, a promise his office, and even he personally, later repeated. But no reply is yet forthcoming.

Now, were I under 40 I would see this as evidence of my brilliance. Clearly, my forensic questioning is causing great concern in the Gove camp. They have probably spent many hours in meetings wondering how on earth to deal with my questions in ways that are acceptable to the educational traditionalists but not frightening to ordinary parents. Had this been 1999, I would be out there accusing Mr Gove of running scared and hiding his true intentions for Government. Perhaps I would drop a note to Ed Balls: ‘Hi Ed, I know we’ve never exactly been pals, but I’ve got your opposite number on the run …..’

Not now. When I wake in the night with some minor ailment or other, I don’t comfort myself with the idea I am causing waves in the pond of education policy. Instead I see my blog post gradually moving down a pile on the corner of the desk of one of Mr Gove’s more junior researchers. Perhaps it is with the letters in green ink that all MPs get from people who have had their internal organs invaded by aliens or want assistance with their twenty year old quest to prove it was they who invented the internet.

Perhaps, Crispin or Jemima have looked up one morning from the cappuccino they are drinking outside a charming riverside pub in Chiswick and said to one another ‘oh gosh, we really must deal with that tiresome blog by that chap who used to work for Tony Blair, or was it Harold Wilson’. But maybe even this is a self serving fantasy.  

Never mind, just a few more years and the final delusions of grandeur will become a memory, rather like the waist that used to hold up my trousers unaided (how is it that waists disappear when you age, how can the middle not be there when both ends still are?). Thank you, Michael, your silence brings the comforting balm of my dotage a little closer.



  • Susmita

    Oh dear. I think you need a day at home and a nice cup of hot chocolate.

    • matthewtaylor

      Bring my a latte now – that would be a start

  • http://www.redhotcurry.com Lopa Patel

    LOL, Matthew! Don’t give in to middle-age paranoia. It could be that Michael Gove simply doesn’t have the answers, or is not as engaged with the topic as you are.

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks for the words of comfort Lopa

  • http://www.radiorgegen.org,www.communityradiotoolkit.net phil korbel

    Lovely post Matthew –

    nice to see that SOH once in a while.

    On that tiresome subject of age – as i count down to the end of my 40’s – I comfort myself with the idea that goal-posts have moved. This means that at my age we’re actually just emerging from a protracted adolescence, realising a mature potential and having the wisdom to attempt to act on the same. With the urgency of some of the issues we’re faced with as a society – that mandate to fulfill that potential is all the more pressing… a good theory anyhow…

    and re M Gove Esq – I always prefer cock-up over conspiracy as a rationale…

  • http://knackeredhack.com knackeredhack

    You can at least count yourself lucky you are not a knackered hack.


    • matthewtaylor

      A knackered hack is what i am but sadly you’ve grabbed the label

  • http://www.thersa.org Nina

    A topical joke to cheer you up

    “Blessed are the young, for they shall inherit the National Debt.”

    Herbert Hoover

    • matthewtaylor

      So true. And what an honour to have you on my comment page El Nino

  • carl allen

    Get real.

    For most people, middle age is the only period of life over which they have some measure of control over how long it lasts and the mental and physical quality of it.

    I expect my middle age to last more than 50 years and still be running my mile.

    Hopefully my old age will be far shorter but science being what it can be, middle age may be longer than planned.

    • matthewtaylor

      A mile? A mile! I do 25 k a week but still the grim ager is catching up……

  • Matthew Kalman


    You’ll be glad to hear that around middle age a spurt in the formation of myelin in the brain apparently means that you in particular have a second chance to rediscover and develop your reflective thinking skills, if you never did so in early adulhood! (Or so Kurt Fischer and Ellen Pruyne wrote in ‘Reflective thinking in adulthood: emergence, development and variation’ – a chapter in the Handbook of Adult Development).

    I’m not into middle age yet, but as I’m into my 40s that apparently means I may start having to confront all my personal ‘Shadow’ material I’ve happily ignored thus far (at least according to the Jungians!). It certainly feels that way, and it’s fairly uncomfortable…

    Re new evidence – did you spot that Newsweek blog post ‘Is ‘Emotional Intelligence’ Real?': http://bit.ly/2Ff4B1

    Is the evidence not exactly stacking up the way Daniel Goleman and co told us it would?

    Oh lordy, what would happen if we could no longer rely on Goleman and Gardner et al and had to go back to all that research on IQ, that told us those things we *really* didn’t want to hear? ;-)

    Do you ever look at the untrendy/libertarian/IQ-related education research, like Charles Murray’s ‘Real Education – Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality’?

    Murray claims we’re all infected by misguided ‘educational romanticism’!

    Here’s a snippet:

    “Educational romanticism consists of the belief that just about all children who are not doing well in school have the potential to do much better. Correlatively, educational romantics believe that the academic achievement of children is determined mainly by the opportunities they receive; that innate intellectual limits (if they exist at all) play a minor role; and that the current K-12 schools have huge room for improvement.
    Educational romanticism characterizes reformers of both Left and Right, though in different ways. Educational romantics of the Left focus on race, class, and gender. It is children of color, children of poor parents, and girls whose performance is artificially depressed, and their academic achievement will blossom as soon as they are liberated from the racism, classism, and sexism embedded in American education. Those of the Right see public education as an ineffectual monopoly, and think that educational achievement will blossom when school choice liberates children from politically correct curricula and obdurate teachers’ unions.
    Many laws are too optimistic, but the No Child Left Behind Act transcended optimism. It set a goal that was devoid of any contact with reality.

    In public discourse, the leading symptom of educational romanticism is silence on the role of intellectual limits even when the topic screams for their discussion. Try to think of the last time you encountered a news story that mentioned low intellectual ability as the reason why some students do not perform at grade level. I doubt if you can. Whether analyzed by the news media, school superintendents, or politicians, the problems facing low-performing students are always that they have come from disadvantaged backgrounds, or have gone to bad schools, or grown up in peer cultures that do not value educational achievement. The problem is never that they just aren’t smart enough.”

    Murray’s full article: http://www.aei.org/article/27962

    Matthew Kalman

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks Matthew. I wonder whether research like that of Elizabeth Gould enables us to get out of this nature nurture dead end. For if nurture happens in the womb and the very early years it may as well be nature by the time the child can speak.

  • http://www.potlatch.org.uk Will Davies

    The existentialists amongst us might reasonably demand to know why it is that the main source of meaning and purpose available to artistically talentless human beings on this earth, namely procreation, appears to have negligible impact on our happiness. Bleary-eyed parents may scoff at my childless naivete, but isn’t cradling a miniature version of yourself supposedly the most fulfilling thing that can happen to (an artistically talentless) individual? Isn’t this the main compensation for the infinity of death? And yet doesn’t the bulk of day-to-day parenting typically happen between the age of 30 and 50?

    Profs Sartre and Layard appear to be at odds with each other.

    • matthewtaylor

      Hi Will. It is a well known but less often discussed finding of contentment studies that there is no correlation between having children and happiness. Having said which I assume older people are more content if they have close family so perhaps the benefits of parenting are experience in old age rather than during the parenting process

  • Sunder Katwala

    Great post.

    And it would probably haveeven done the trick and got you a Gove response by Monday, were it not for the even more pressing issue of tory party conference

    • matthewtaylor

      Yes I was hoping this unconventional approach might crack it – but no sign so far. Maybe his entire speech will be a denunciation of my blog post!

  • http://twitterrhian rhian

    I guess if you’ve never suffered rejection till middle-age, its gonna hurt…
    Maybe for all those poor depressed women its was the day they walked past a building site and were greeted with a stony silence instead of whistles..not that i’d know yet of course..
    Could be worse though…its only Michael Gove. Imagine if it was someone really important.? I used to have his email add but I deleted it, or I could have threatened him for you..send him loving thoughts maybe..?

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks Rhian. There’s also the eye-contact thing. When you are young lingering eye contact with an attractive stranger feels like affirming. Then on e day you do it and realise you are being looked at with a combination of disdain and suspicion…

  • carl allen

    In middle age, unfortunately, the 25k a week is of minimum value unless your heart beats much faster at the end, for a little while. It must be thumping.

    25k a week on a long term basis, even with todays training shoes, may not be good for the knees.

    And it is the variety of exercises that brings health. Peeling oranges as versus drinking from the cartoon is a variety of exercise.

  • Susmita

    Matthew, I’m pleased to see you cite that study about children not bringing happiness. Just don’t tell my parents, okay?

  • http://www.yoosk.com TimHood

    There you go Matthew…..


    Now you know why Michael has been too busy to reply. It was obviously all that thought and intellectual energy going into the Troops to Teachers programme and the Blazers and Ties policy. Michael and his team just haven’t had the headspace to get round to your questions….

    Thanks for your reply to my email, by the way.