Age is the new youth

The generations that invented youth culture are hitting 50 and, far from slowing down, are more active and relevant than ever, says Laura Tennant

30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy, the character played by Alec Baldwin in NBC’s hit sitcom, said it best when he declared: “Rich 50 is the new 30.” Donaghy’s comically overweening male arrogance may be a little old school, but there’s no arguing with his essential point that for men and increasingly women, 50 and beyond is no longer a time to wind down in preparation for pipe, slippers and retirement in Bournemouth.

Instead, the generation now hitting 50 is seizing the opportunity to create a richer, fuller and more exciting ‘second life’ than was ever dreamed of by their parents. That might involve re-assessing relationships or career, or it might just mean refusing to be constrained by our lazy cultural habit of dictating tastes, interests and passions by decade.

Looking for inspiration? Consider, just for starters, Nick Cave, Debbie Harry, Irvine Welsh and Sharon Stone, all of whom remain cool, sexy and relevant in their respective fields. They have, in fact, ascended to the ranks of what writer Catherine Mayer has dubbed the ‘amortals’, a group who disdain the notion of ‘age-appropriate’ behaviour, interests, outlook or dress. Amortals from 18 to 80 do what they damn well please, and a similar apotheosis is open to anyone with the gumption to recognise that age is just a number.

In her book Amortality: The Pleasures and Perils of Living Agelessly (Vermilion), Mayer cleverly analyses, “The swelling ranks of people who live agelessly, doing and consuming many of the same things from teens to old age. Unwitting revolutionaries, we assume all options remain open, from youth into old age [and] we never consider ourselves too young to pair up, break up, launch businesses, take on the world or too old for fresh commitments, old habits, the latest technologies or new diversions.”

Her point is that while the Seven Ages of Man used to be strictly defined and their borders fiercely policed, we now live in a permanent state of kidulthood, our age non-specific and our mortality a distant rather than a definite possibility.

What’s striking to me, however, is how the redefinition of our experiences and perceptions of youth and maturity has coincided with the coming to true middle age of the culturally powerful baby boomer generation.

In the States, they call them ‘alpha boomers’. Not only is the 55-64 demographic the fastest-growing in that nation, but alpha boomers also enjoy America’s second-highest median income, spend more money on goods and services and own more iPads and smartphones than any other age group. In Britain, you, dear reader, likely fall into the same category.

Now the very generation that invented youth culture and age apartheid – hope I die before I get old – are reinventing them. They may have left behind their chronological youth, but they’ve carried within them youthquake values of alertness, vitality and authenticity.

Talk to men and women who seem strikingly ageless and vividly alive, and a common thread emerges: a willingness to experiment, seek out adventure and continue to learn.

Take Marianna Tregoning, who founded her skincare line Beyond Organic at 57 and enjoyed a ten-year relationship with a partner 20 years her junior until his tragic death from a brain haemorrhage five years ago. Marianne, now 62, tells me: “I’ve always grabbed life with both hands and shaken it to see what comes out. And I haven’t changed. I’m still shaking it and finding new and exciting things.”

Be you boomer, amortal or just ‘fab after fifty’, one thing seems clear: it ain’t over till it’s over.