Older is in the eye of the beholder

Visiting contributor, Mike Paul, wonders exactly how old is “old” these days?

Recently I went to see Alan Bennett’s play ”The Habit of Art“, the centrepiece of which is an imagined meeting between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten. At the time of the meeting Auden was in his early sixties and, if Bennett’s script is an accurate reflection of his feelings, pretty depressed. He felt that his best years were very much behind him and was dwelling on missed opportunities.  The play was enjoyable and thought provoking but, despite being a similar age to Auden, I found it very difficult to relate to his malaise.

A few days later, I attended a presentation on consumer trends at which one speaker made the point that over the last 20 years the age at which people consider that the word “old “ is a fair description of their condition has risen rapidly. It now apparently stands at 68 and I’m sure there are plenty of 68 year olds who would take issue even with that.

This made me think back to Auden. How much was his mood, and my lack of empathy, down to the fact that he was, despite being a literary giant, very much a man of his time whilst I am clearly a man of mine? To me Auden appeared old before his time, both in how he saw society and more importantly in how he saw himself.  At one point he tells Britten that his greatest fear is that when he dies and meets God that God will sit him down and read him all the poems that he should have written. He appeared to believe that the muse had left him for good and was increasingly turning to alcohol to console himself, as opposed to telling himself that he was only 63 and his greatest work might well lie ahead of him.

And as I considered the question further I couldn’t help thinking how fortunate I am to be of the baby boom generation; it is difficult to believe that there has ever been a time when, as a generality, those of us in our sixties have felt so positive about life (at least those of us living in the First World). The time we live in seems to provide a framework within which it is increasingly acceptable to defer being old to some vague point in the future. However much we all like to think we are all masters of our own destiny we are to a large extent prisoners of our time and in our case society and peer pressure, linked to remarkable advances in medical science, encourages rather than constrains us in our desire to live life to the full for as long as possible, irrespective of our age.

And what I also find interesting is that we are, in many ways, pathfinders; we are redefining old age at every turn and in every way simply because our generation represents in attitude and culture a greater break with the preceding generation than there has perhaps ever been. One can speculate about how this has come to pass.  A reaction to post war austerity perhaps? Coupled with living through an era that has not only been relatively free from the traumas of conflict but has also encompassed quite remarkable economic and technological growth. All of which has, amongst other things, liberalised (in the broadest sense of the word) society to an extent which someone like Auden would find astonishing.

Future generations I’m sure will criticise us for the society we have created, in terms of how we have abused some (many?) of the opportunities and privileges presented to us, and a reaction of some kind is inevitable. However in terms of how we have redefined old age I can’t see how there can be any turning back. In fact the likelihood is that in another 20 or so years most of us will probably still not be prepared to define ourselves as “old“ in the sense that our parents, or indeed Auden, would have used the word.


Visiting contributor: Mike Paul, 5th January, 2011

Mike Paul is 62 and is married with three children, the oldest of whom is 15. The family are based in Shropshire but he spends half the week in Richmond, Surrey. He has been in the Wine industry since leaving University and is currently self-employed, working as a non exec or as a consultant. He is also a keen student of political history.

One comment on “Older is in the eye of the beholder
  1. susanne says:

    Thing is we don’t altogether define our status or identities or how we want to be perceived, ourselves. Remember how long it took to get offensive attitudes and labels removed from people defined by disability or colour for example. Maybe another previously disempowered and stigmnatised group,older people have the advantge of having others who wield power being the of the same age group or amongst younger people who have been influenced by the post war generation, But the disadvantage being the older we get the less power and control we have – and younger people may not share our self image. One of the most obvious clues to the reason lots of people feel happy in their later years is that they are economically secure, often have opportunities to continue part time work of high enough status, often if not overtly paid, with pretty good expenses and perks, with the knock on of stimulating social relationships,[plently of even baby boomers are not as lucky ) Labels and definitions are important, patronising and degrading ones need to be challenged, eg old age pensioners, why not senior citizen when the necessity does arise to decare anything at all? Why are people lumped together by age regardless of condition in horrendously upsetting hospital wards? And those incredibly offensive roadside signs depicting older peole crossing -ad nauseum….. I don’t think it is going to be easy but c’est la vie!

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