WHO’S old today? ‘Blistering speech on Brexit’ by 76-yearold Ken Clarke, journey to Japan and Hiroshima planned by 80-year-old Pope Francis and another busy year ahead for 90-year-old Elizabeth II: these current news stories may seem to feature the exceptions, but there’s hardly a village in England that doesn’t rely on 70 and 80 year olds to keep things running, raise money and look after the less able. There are, of course, the ‘sit down at 60’ brigade, but even they rely on that army of redoubtable men and women who have no intention of giving up.
People such as Caroline Cranbrook, at 81, the scourge of out-of-town shopping, but now taking up cudgels for rural businesses hit by rate increases; Elizabeth ButlerSloss, still battling for the deprived at 83; or the youthful Ann Hay, who, at 75, runs a Cumbrian bowling club, coffee mornings for the ‘oldies’ and produces wonderful flower arrangements for the local church. Who’s calling them old? We’ve all got to adjust to a new attitude in which, to quote the 97-yearold athlete Charles Eugster, ‘age is just a number’.
It’s no longer good enough to think of the over-sixties as if they fitted the road-sign image of two old dears with sticks trying to cross the street. Nor should we revise our attitudes just because we can’t afford to pay pensions as early as once we did. In the words of Japanese gerontologist Yasuyoshi Ouchi, it’s simply: ‘Today’s elderly are younger than in the past.’ And he should know. Japan’s Geriatrics Society conducted a major piece of research that showed that even between 2000 and 2010, people seemed to have aged much less and, on average, appeared 10 years younger than their forebears. Thus the society redefined the elderly, starting them at 75 instead of 65. Not surprising really, considering that our notion of 65 was invented by the Germans in 1916.
The change in attitude is urgently needed as a matter of respect and a recognition of the continuing contribution of older people. Retirement shouldn’t be the goal for the fulfilled. Change and learning new skills, taking on different demands and new challenges ought to be the expectation of healthy people in their sixties, seventies and even eighties.
The caveat of ‘healthy’ is, of course, important. Recognising that most of us are healthier than ever before shouldn’t blind us to the fact that a minority is incapacitated by illness— but that can be true at any age. The proportion rises as people get older, but incapacity should never be seen as a necessary part of the definition of age. In that case, why should ambassadors be required to retire at 60 or Church of England clergy at 70, irrespective of their capacity?
This ageism is not only very old-fashioned, it’s extremely expensive. If we continue to think like this, the next generation will have an intolerable burden of paying for active people who increasingly live well into their nineties.
How much better and cheaper if pension entitlements were rolled forward and men and women worked longer so that, when they do retire, they will have more to live on. It’s the attitude that counts. Research is very clear. You remain healthy longer if you’re active, engaged and working. It’s already true that, in many countries, even with proper social-security systems, more than half want to work to 70 or beyond. It’s a view we should recognise as normal and encourage it. If nothing else, it reduces our stock of curmudgeonly old boors for whom complaining fills the space left by not working.
‘It’s no longer good enough to think of the over-sixties as the road-sign image of two old dears