The Sunday Times

February 17th, 2013

To go on or to give in? The awkward age has arrived

‘At 63, a time of life when most women would be thinking about taking it easy, Ms Amazingly Enterprising is about to take up the very demanding position of …” I read no more. While scanning the newspapers last week, my eyes had settled on this first line of an article, only to move quickly on in search of something important and memorable.

But actually I have remembered — been unable to forget — what lies beneath that unremarkable story. It is the painful question of when the time has come to start thinking about taking it easy — when it is time to hang up one’s dancing shoes.

When I first saw that article, the figure 63 struck me as perfectly ridiculous. Most people will need to work until they are much older than that, and will consider themselves lucky if they have work. But I have been wondering ever since.

A friend of mine who is prominent in the media, and working hard at sixtysomething, told me rather wistfully last week that she wondered when, if ever, she should or could give up trying to squeeze herself into skimpy designer frocks and spending her evenings relentlessly networking.

And did she really want to? She feels weary at times, and not always amused by the human comedy, but should she resist the dismal temptation of flatter shoes and a quiet existence? Is taking things easy tantamount to giving up on life? Will letting her hair grow grey lead her straight to the retirement party, whether or not she can afford to retire? These are the awkward questions of a new awkward age — the later middle age of the powerful baby-boom generation. Baby-boomers (born 1946-59, in my opinion) grew up thinking nothing mattered as much as youth. To be young was very heaven.

Now the baby-boomers are beginning to get old and they find it rather hellish. (I say they, but I should say we: it is just that, as part of a generation obsessed with the young and the new, I can hardly bring myself to renounce youth altogether.) And they — or we — are having a hard time letting go of youth and power, or even of middle age and power. Baby-boomers are in denial about old age.

We are surrounded on all sides by baby-boomer propaganda. Fifty is the new forty, we were told some time ago. Now sixtysomething is the new fortysomething. There is some truth in this. Better health, better diets and exciting new hormone therapies all make old people who can afford them seem much younger than they are — and feel it too.

Then there is cosmetic enhancement: the number of stories about famous older men and women who are ageing gracefully without “help” makes me laugh; there can hardly be an ageing celebrity praised for avoiding the knife who has not, in fact, had a lot of work done, including surgery. And why not? No elixirs of youth and vigour, however, no hormones or hair replacements, are entirely proof against the awkward age. This is that difficult period between the moment a person senses the fleeting of youthful middle age and the time when he feels acutely the signs of old age and can no longer disguise them from other people: for a woman, as Oscar Wilde almost said, it is the difficult time between being a ruin and becoming a monument.

Thanks to all the developments of modern science — there’s even a new technique of making a person’s voice sound younger — the awkward age has been greatly, perhaps rather painfully, extended. A fit man may look great in a bomber jacket and astonish ticket collectors with his senior railcard, but, unknown to others, his skiers’ knees may be crocked and his memory less sharp.

A busy woman of sixty something might still be as thin and energetic as her daughter, but she could have arthritis in her manicured hands, winter in her heart and trouble hearing other networkers braying at parties. The constant nagging question throughout the awkward age is how long to go on denying the inevitable, before giving in.

One can hardly describe the present Pope as a baby-boomer and I am not for one moment suggesting that he has used cosmetic aids, but he — rather like my generation — is someone who thought he could and should go on for ever, but had to realise in the end that he couldn’t. It was all too horribly stressful and tiring, and he had to accept that he couldn’t hack it any more.

This terrible realisation will come to most of us sooner or later, though there can be few workplaces in the world quite as unpleasant as the Vatican: one day we will (or ought to) realise we no longer have quite the necessary energy or quick wits or hormonal drive for our work.

This knowledge comes to ice skaters and mathematicians sooner than to most of us, but it will come. There will be plenty of people anxious to point it out — or there would be if ageism were not illegal; they are the younger people who understandably see the powerful baby-boomers as job blockers.

There are some stout spirits who gallantly embrace old age. The writer Virginia Ironside, now 68, is one. For some time she’s been writing funny novels and articles about how wonderful it is to leave behind the hurly-burly of youth and middle age and sex, and embrace senescence, ideally spending long hours in a well-chosen dressing gown.

She’s right that there are many, many consolations and pleasures of older age, such as being rude to people, but I simply don’t believe she really means it. After all, she herself at the age of sixtysomething decided to become a stand-up comedian and is now touring the country with a successful one-woman show called Growing Old Disgracefully. I can’t think of any more obvious protest against old age than that; few young or middle-aged women would have the necessary energy and drive.

Actually, I think the baby-boomers will mostly be spared the decision of when to give up gracefully. Most of us belong to the sandwich generation, between struggling, impoverished adult children and extremely frail ancient parents and their constant need of funds. And at the same time, the welfare state is rapidly running out of money. So most of us won’t be able to choose to give up.

The generation that shopped till it dropped will have to work till it drops, to help support the generations on either side. The baby-boom generation will never have a time to think about taking it easy: it isn’t going to be easy.