When I read last week about Stephen Hester』s £9.6m ($15.8m) pay packet, I felt a sting of moral outrage. That the chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland should be earning quite so much struck me as the most grotesquely excessive executive pay deal there has ever been.
It is not just that he is paying himself 600 times more than one of his bank』s tellers or that he is getting considerably more than the heads of Lloyds or Citibank. The true outrage is this: at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where we were both students, Steve (as he was then) Hester was in the year below. When I was just starting my second year at university, Steve was a fresher and I viewed him as inferior in two ways. He was in the first intake of boys at the red-brick women』s college, and these boys were mostly rejects from the ancient men』s colleges and were, on the whole, pretty poor specimens. More damningly still, Steve was 18¾, whereas I was 20¼.
Fast forward 30 years and Stephen is still a year and a half younger than I am – he is now 48½ and, as of last Friday, I am 50. Therefore, for him to be paid that much is not only gross, it feels against the natural order.
This business of ranking people obsessively according to their age relative to my own is something I have been doing ever since I could count. As a child, I knew exactly who was older and who was younger than me in my class. I felt fine if those older did better than I did but took a very dim view of precocious outperformance by anyone younger, even if their birthday was a mere couple of days after my own.
I realise that being age-obsessed is not attractive. Apart from anything else, it is practically illegal and, in any case, should be irrelevant. But I don』t see it that way. Age, surely, is an incontestable measuring stick against which our achievements, our appearance and our tastes can be measured. Yet over the past year or two, I have found my obsession increasingly unrewarding. Now that so many pesky people are younger than me, including the US president (two years, one month and nine days younger, if you must know), it is time to change the age comparison game.
So, I have tried to adapt it for players who are getting on. For a start, one must be careful about whom one compares oneself to. Last week, I conducted an experiment with the chief executives of FTSE 100 companies. Laboriously I checked their ages, starting with companies at the beginning of the alphabet. Of the first 10, the youngest was 41 and the average age was 48. This was not comforting, so I gave up.
Oddly, a better result is achieved if one compares oneself not to successful business people but to successful pop stars. To celebrate my birthday last weekend I went to Glastonbury, which was the perfect venue for an age-obsessed 50-year-old. Neil Young is 63, Bruce Springsteen is 59 and Francis Rossi of Status Quo is 60 – and they topped the bill on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights respectively.
Another way of limiting the pain is to narrow the field. I have long since stopped comparing myself to anyone who is much younger than I am and have decided that the success of anyone under 40 is unthreatening as it is so distant. Last week, I was sent an e-mail about someone who had retired from investment banking after a brilliantly successful career. He was 25. Whippersnapper, I thought, patronisingly.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to a 50th birthday party given by a university friend who had invited almost everyone I have ever known. I found myself talking to a man who I had last seen at a 40th party 10 years earlier. He cast his eye round the room and declared that everyone looked better at 50 than they had at 40.
Nonsense, I said. I pointed out that the women』s hair was looking luridly synthetic, their teeth longer and skin slacker. The men, meanwhile, had spent the previous decade losing hair and gaining chins.
He replied that we looked better because we were acquiring wisdom and it was showing on our faces. I wasn』t sure about this either. All I could see on my friends』 faces was alcohol; our immodest consumption that evening cast doubt on any idea that we were wiser than we had been 10 or even 30 years earlier.
Yet this man was on to something. We have acquired something – even if it isn』t beauty or wisdom. Instead, it』s ease. At 50, we are starting to stop minding about what others think of us and this is an enormous, fabulous improvement. Even better, we aren』t so painfully on the make any more. There were a few very successful people at the party who were insufferable at 40 but now wear their triumphs more lightly. There were also people who have endured a string of failures but they too have recovered from the bitterness and chippiness of their 30s and 40s and are wearing their disappointments more lightly, too.
In other words, my contemporaries seem to have stopped playing the obsessive game of age comparison – which may mean it is time for me to join them. Therefore, I must try to forgive Steve Hester for being successful in spite of being younger than me (though not for being paid so much) and try to stop comparing other people』s ages with my own. And as if to prove the point, I woke up on my 50th birthday to find out that Michael Jackson – born precisely 10 months earlier than me – was successful no more. He was dead.