A survey published last month made the astonishing discovery that we British view old age as beginning at 59 years old. (Only the Turkish see it as starting earlier than us: at just 55 you’re perceived as being on the way to a bus pass and a zimmer frame in the land where East meets West.)
One’s first reaction is to fume at such impudence. The temerity of it! A 59-year-old was born in 1952, for crying out loud. That means in 1969 they were either growing flowers in their hair or wearing mohair suits and riding off to Brighton, on scooters bearing more mirrors than Vidal Sassoon’s salon. They were popping purple hearts, dropping blue microdots and listening to songs about yellow submarines. Cats and chicks celebrated free love and free concerts. Dudes toured the world in VW microbuses or traversed America on Harley Davidsons. No one does young the way fifty-somethings did young.
How, then, could we possibly be perceived as old? Old, when we were young, meant men in suits and women with blue rinses. An electric guitar was as alien to my father as flower arranging would have been to the average Viking. Old people sat in deck chairs around band stands, wore hankies on their heads and coughed their way into grimy pubs and Methodist churches.
Today’s 59-year-olds, on the other hand, go skiing, go surfing, go trekking, go to Foo Fighters concerts and, whisper it, occasionally puff on a spliff with their more louche friends. Hell, plenty pride themselves on not only knowing who Tinie Tempah is, but enjoy his records, too.
What is old about any of that?
It all depends on who’s doing the judging. We see energetic, free-spirited individuals essentially the same as our children but with a few more wrinkles and some grey hair. Our children see Clive Anderson.
So really the validity of this survey depends on who they asked. If it were a bunch of 20-year-olds, you could almost say it’s amazing they’ve pitched it so high. Most of our European counterparts saw old age as starting between the ages of 60 and 65 – the Germans didn’t even see youth ending until the age of 45 – but isn’t this just wishful thinking? The verdict of 59 is merely a reflection of a gutsy, no-nonsense British honesty. And admit it, haven’t you noticed the odd ache and pain that wasn’t there before? The odd senior moment? In fact, 59 seems just the time to start taking it a bit easy. Still do the skiing and windsurfing, but, well, cut down on the work.
Unfortunately, pensions minister Steve Webb, a mere stripling of 45, doesn’t agree. “The idea that 59 is old belongs in the past,” he said in a speech to the Chatham House think tank. “We need to challenge our perceptions of what old age actually means. It is no longer the time where people are sitting back and enjoying the twilight of their lives. Instead it is a time for new choices and opportunities.”
He’s missing something here, surely? When he talks about “new choices and opportunities”, what he actually means is “keep working for longer to keep the tax coming in”. But how about another idea? Instead of persuading us old fifty-somethings to work until we drop, why not encourage leaving school at 16, ban gap years and get the kids working? Rather than putting the retirement age back, we should pull it forward to say, ooh, 60, as it is in France, and give us all a decade-long grown-up ‘gap year’.
Then we can get on with surfing, going to concerts, climbing mountains and enjoying ourselves before we’re really old and that dodgy leg starts getting serious. And our children’s generation can drag themselves off Facebook and get the economy going to pay for our exertions.