The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

February 3rd, 2008

The joyous freedom of the frisky fifties

There is a sense at fiftysomething of burdens falling away, of old struggles abandoned

In these gloomy days it is cheering to be told that it’s fun to be 50, particularly if one is 50. It is not, we were informed last week, that 50 is the new 40 or the new 30; it seems that fiftysomething is positively better than fortysomething or thirtysomething – friskier, flirtier, fitter and much less depressed than those unhappy people clinging miserably to late youth, as we now call it. And that’s not all: old age is apparently happier than middle age and just as happy as youth. Things can only get better, as the Labour party used to say.

The two sources for this uplifting news are what one must call mixed. One is a survey commissioned by Saga magazine, the sprightly publication for the overfifties; it found that 65% of those questioned who were aged 50 or more said they were sexually active, with 46% of these saying they “got between the sheets at least once a week”. That doesn’t sound frightfully frisky to me, but does at least suggest signs of life. What’s more, many of the respondents said they found sex more fulfilling and “less pressurised” than in their youth.

Emma Soames, the glamorous editor of Saga, said: “These findings shatter the myth that once you hit 50 your sex life is over. There is less pressure than when people were younger and it is likely that you feel more comfortable about your body.” She went on: “Forget about the dirty thirties or the naughty forties. The frisky fifties are having the most fun.”

There is a downside to all this. More and more of the frisky fifties, not to mention the sexy sixties and scintillating seventies, are getting STIs, or what they in their youth used to call VD. Lots of respectable elderly ladies and gentlemen are now shyly visiting clap clinics because, apparently, they were under the impression that only young people got herpes and gonorrhoea. Perhaps the government should start free refresher sex education classes, along with free bus passes. But the encouraging aspect of all this is that older people are getting about a bit, making new friends and taking gentle exercise in this way.

The other source of consolation about time’s winged chariot is a rather weightier psychological survey of 2m people in 80 countries, by two economists. Professor Andrew Oswald and Professor David Blanchflower have found that 50 really is more fun. They don’t exactly put it that way; they argue that a miserable middle age is a global phenomenon, regardless of money, gender, family and health.

What they mean by middle age, confusingly, is not fiftysomething, but forty or even thirtysomething. They have found a worldwide, U-shaped curve of psychological wellbeing with the most miserable period in the forties. This midlife depression is universal, it seems, and Britons are most depressed at 44. “Only in their fifties,” says Oswald, “do most people emerge from the low period,” and by 70, someone in good health is as likely to be happy as a 20-year-old. So the fifties really might be friskier.

This idea that there is something better and brighter about advancing old age is too good to disbelieve. I intend to get up every day reaffirming my faith in it. Sceptics of course might well say that the fifties and the sixties are an awkward age, at least in this country. Many baby boomers are caught between the needs of elderly parents and dependent adult children who can’t afford to leave home. What lies ahead does not look good – rising taxes, low-earning children, a much reduced pension, filthy hospitals, nasty old people’s homes and almost no chance of social care at home.

All the same, among fiftysomethings who are reasonably well and well off there are signs that life is getting better, both relatively and absolutely. And they call themselves middle aged for far longer – well into their sixties, it seems. Recently, skiing in Austria, I noticed that underneath the bobble hats of the people swooping confidently down the slopes, the hair was almost always grey, or else expensively streaked Knightsbridge blonde. Thirty or 40 years ago one didn’t see grey hair on ski lifts. Now it’s quite common to see skiers of 70 or 80, and 50-year-olds feel quite young.

People over 50 often look surprisingly young as well, compared with their parents’ generation. That is partly because they – perhaps I should say we – reject the idea of getting old; it is anathema to baby boomers who remember the Who in 1965 singing “Hope I die before I get old”. This extended youth isn’t only a matter of attitude; it’s also largely due to modern medicine and modern nutrition, if not always a little modern cosmetic intervention.

However, clinging to youth is clearly not the secret of happiness in middle age, although looking young may contribute to it. The secret, I suspect, has more to do with letting go. We seem to be hard-wired to do it. There is, at least for the fortunate, a sense at fiftysomething of burdens falling away, of old struggles abandoned, of a new freedom from the torments of ambition, or at any rate a better way of dealing with them. For women the oestrogen wars are over and men are less the slaves of their own hormones too; this makes relationships all round a great deal less complicated.

There is something liberating about feeling that one is on the home straight; the race isn’t over yet, but most of it is behind us, like the anxieties along the way, and the outcome seems much more understandable and somehow much less important.

Our sons and our daughters are beyond our command, as Dylan said, and while it is sad to lose them to independence, it seems to come at the right time, again as if we were hard-wired to accept it. Years of the exhaustion and daily preoccupation of looking after young children fall away and suddenly there seems to be more time. We may worry that our little grey cells are dying in their millions, but there’s plenty of evidence that older people, until dementia sets in, often use their brains and talents more efficiently than the young.

These days some people probably do have the powers of late youth with the freedoms of middle age and old age. As to whether the fifties are any friskier than before, however, I doubt it.

As an old lady supposedly said to George Bernard Shaw, when he asked her at what age women lose interest in sex: “I haven’t the least idea. You see, I’m only 83.”