Baby Boomers Invented The Adolescent. Now They Are Busy Giving Retirement A Makeover

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Many are crossing the threshold into later life with a teenager’s attitude – if retirement is no fun it’s not for them.

Courtesy Yvonne Roberts at The Guardian UK.

Peace has finally come to the valley. More than 100 residents of the previously tranquil village of Ireshopeburn, County Durham, UK in the north Pennines area of outstanding natural beauty, complained about the blaring electronic rave music regularly played by clinician Sarina Saiger until 4am. Last week, the residents won and Saiger, who’d argued that she wasn’t the culprit who had turned up the volume, was left with an £8,000 legal bill. “She’s a lady in her 50s, for goodness sake,” one resident said. “I just don’t understand why anyone would act like that.”

Age-appropriate behaviour is not what it was. A century ago, hitting 60 often meant it was time to get ready to meet the grim reaper. Now, it’s the dawn of another 20 to 25 years of life – but lived how? Poverty, ill health and isolation, for some, may define a retirement not very different from previous generations, while the internet, the alleged contemporary version of the good neighbour, won’t ride to the rescue, since many people aged 65 or older have never used a computer. But that is only one piece of the jigsaw.

According to Age UK, a third of the population of Britain is over 50 and owns four-fifths of disposable income. By 2040, nearly a quarter will be over 65. The British population of over-65s, now at 11.6m, is growing four times faster than the general population. No wonder twentysomethings are dying their hair grey but not yet asking for wrinkle implantation.

According to Age UK, when people aged 60 to 64 were asked at what stage of life they had “arrived”, 43% said “middle adulthood”; a mythical land previously not inhabited by many and whom fashion retailers have no idea how to dress. Hoodies and shirt-tails out for septuagenarian men may just about work but older women can find themselves wandering in a confusing limbo land that stretches from Little Mix via sequinned and bewigged Joan Collins to Hyacinth Bouquet; looking good for your age is not the same as attempting 25 or adopting 90.

Anthropologically speaking, ageing is spawning a range of new tribes. Age has its benefits, yet the advertising industry, where nine out of 10 employees are under 40, still mainly speaks the language of stairlifts, elasticated trousers and incontinence pads.

A report by Experian Marketing Services last year had a go at categorising the older consumer with the “grey pound”. “Diamond days” are affluent and “clustered in the south-east”; “smarties” are those in market towns living well; “senior security” live by the sea; and “vintage value” represent the poorest group reliant on a state pension and least likely to own a mobile phone. It’s a beginning – if only for the plot of a new soap – but understanding ageing is proving to be a lot more complex.

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On BBC’s Newsnight last week one couple talked about getting married in their 60s – for emotional, not financial, reasons. It seems the divorce generation – including women who signed up to feminism and are likely to have been in paid work and more economically independent than their mothers – is giving refashioned matrimony a second go. According to the Office for National Statistics, in the five years to 2014, while marriage declined or fluctuated in other age groups, among those aged 65 and over, rates of opposite-sex marriage, from a low base, increased by 56% among women and 41% among men – a direction of travel that may end up who knows where?

Trouble is a possible destination. Marriage in later age can also cause strife among offspring about who gets what and why. David Willetts, in The Pinch: How Baby Boomers Stole Their Children’s Future has done his best to stir up an inter-generational war, claiming the selfish postwar baby boomers are refusing to share the treasure. This was the generation that were the first to go to university from working-class backgrounds, the first to buy (cheap) housing, the first, in many cases, to have long stable lives in professional careers with decent pensions.

The result is that three-quarters of over-65s are owner occupiers – 6.5 million. According to property consultancy Knight Frank, it is estimated that over-60s own £1.23tn in unmortgaged housing wealth. Annoyingly for some, the Experian report says that the over-65s spend £1.3bn more on travel a year than 10 years ago, while people under 35 spend £920m less.

“It’s not fair,” was the cry heard across the land accompanied by the slamming of doors and a blast of (the ageing) Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock, when, in the 1950s, the teenager was invented. Adulthood for the teenager was a different world – odd clothes, weird hair and no fun. Today, many are crossing the threshold into later life with a similar attitude – if retirement is odd clothes, weird hair and no fun, it’s not for them. So what will it be?

Who knows? What is clear is that in ageing, many share – they help with housing costs and childcare and, according to the charity Grandparents Plus and the longitudinal work on “the changing life course” by the Economic and Social Research Council, a role with grandchildren is valued highly, as is friendship, “connectedness” and experiences (weekends away, reviving Britain’s seaside economy) .

Today’s retirees are born out of an era of contradictions – anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment, politically active, collectivists with a conscience but also disciples of individualism, graduates of yuppiedom and members of the selfish “me generation”. All of which now goes into the pot. Perhaps the best legacy the 65-plus will leave – apart from, for some children, handsome inheritances – is a cultural one, the modernisation of ageing.

A proximity to death is a reminder for baby boomers that time isn’t on their side, so while work matters (and for many it will have to continue into their 70s) it’s not as important as living a life. It’s not as imperative as not giving a stuff for “should” and what others might say; a fresh kind of liberation.

As George Bernard Shaw said: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” Let’s just see how that pans out.