No more ’til death do us part, no more retirement?
We must redefine what old age is
Too many of us are not dying before we get old. Talkin’ ’bout my generation. A lot of us will hang about, pricing young people out of housing, squatting in family homes with empty rooms. We had grants, tuition fees paid, cheap housing, access to jobs, travel, a smidgeon of social mobility. That’s the ageist stereotype largely taken for granted. We are boom; our children are bust. Actually, though life has not been so bad, we still fear the diseases of old age: dementia and cancer. It is obvious that much of my cohort does not have the means to have a relaxed old age.
Those 10 years older than me really hit the jackpot, retiring on golden pensions in their mid-50s, property bought, and now they have a lot of disposable income. Imagine that. Property developers understand that income, even though the world of fashion doesn’t. Thus we have the flogging of flats around London Fields, east London, discounted for the “over 55s”. These new “hipsters” will presumably be blasting out some superannuated grime from their balconies while they check their Isas. Once again, everything seems skewed against young people. Boomers are greedy and self–obsessed. The only thing the young have going for them is their actual skin.
Yet is not quite like that, is it? The inter-generational conflict is largely cultural. Parents and carers often know how unfair things are. We anxiously overcompensate for the squeezing of our offspring’s choices. The continuing idea that young people must vote because they alone can change the outcome of this election is appealing. But it is trite and untrue. There are just not enough of them. It also becomes a somewhat divisive way to write off older generations as Ukippy Tories.
Surely, as we are all living longer, we need to define what old age is. In the 1970s, for instance, men in Europe had an average 10 years’ life after retirement; now it’s 22 years. This is a burden on any pensions system. Much is to do with the social construction of work. A scaffolder may well need to quit at 65 in a way that a programmer doesn’t. Gerontologists are now talking about 120-year life expectancies and with this comes the need to re-order everything we take to be the milestones of life.
Should marriage mean ’til death do us part, when life could apparently could go on for decades? Sarah Harper, head of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, speaking at the Hay festival, said we have to look at marriage in terms of these very long lives. Do people want to be together “50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100 years”? She thinks it is likely we are going to have “more fluid lives”.
What does such fluidity mean? Mostly we discuss old people as burdensome, lonely, bedblocking. The period when folk are active and retired but not feeble – is that old age? Or do we redefine that as the time right before the end?
It depends on health, of course. Jeremy Corbyn looks full of vim at 68; Donald Trump, at 70, looks tired, bloated and absent much of the time. Our gains in longevity mean we have to rethink which bit is the prime of our lives, which bit is “retirement”, and is retirement simply leisure?
So no more ’til death do us part – no more retirement. The twin pillars of love and work that shape us have to be refashioned if lifespans continue to increase.
This is hard to discuss because, though it may be a little further away, this is still about mortality. Much discussion of ageing is entirely superficial, as though it can be kept away with the right cleanser and some yoga. There is no alternative to ageing but dying, but that’s not what it says on your pot of serum.
The interconnectedness, not the conflict, of generations is key here. Who cares for whom – and for how long? My friends and I often talk about how we don’t want our children to care for us, often having done it for our parents. We worked and brought up children and this extra stretch is very, very hard. Fifty is not the new 40 when a woman is caring for both her kids and parents. It is simply exhausting.
The avoidance of discussion on this is because it is assumed that either women will care for free, or the state will. This is no longer the case. The backlash against Theresa May’s social care policy happened because it was unfair, but also because it was saying the state cannot go on paying in the way it has. We know this, really.
Old age is not only an economic or housing issue. The Beveridge model no longer works. William Beveridge fixed the pension age at 65 because half of all male manual workers were dead by 70. The challenge of living longer, then, is not only financial but also to find ways of living that are more “fluid”. Clearly, neither the state nor isolated families are providing a satisfying old age for so many. Is this up to the young to think about, this different world? Have we left it too late? How might we grow old differently? Have we got enough time to figure it out? No. But we can make a start.