December 29, 2009

UK: In praise of turning 60

. LONDON, England / The Telegraph / Lifestyle / December 29, 2009 What's wrong with hitting 60? Nothing, says one laid-back, liberated writer who recently reached the milestone decade. By Emma Soames Emma Soames, who recently turned 60 You might think that one would have got used to the idea of hitting 60, given how many years one has to think about it, not to mention, in my case, working for a company that knows more about being 60 than possibly any other business in the country. But whichever way you cut it, it does sound rather old, doesn't it? I wish I could trot out that old cliché that I don't feel my age. But I can't because I've never been 60 before, so maybe this is what it always felt like. But it's not bad at all. I looked up an article I wrote for this paper when I was in my early fifties and I have to say that I feel much the same. Thanks to a fabulous armoury of anti-ageing weapons, including exercise, Botox, highlights and increasingly creative corsetry, 60 doesn't look like 60 anymore. And in much the same way that my fifties proved to be a revelation, this new decade is following suit. I truly believe that no other generation has hit this age feeling quite so defiant, if not buoyant. I remember the 60th-birthday celebrations of a distant cousin when I was about 12 years old. As always, cousin Madeleine wore sensible walking shoes, a tweed skirt and a brown cardigan. Her only concession to the giddiness of her birthday celebrations was a string of pearls, worn with her WRVS brooch. On my birthday, I wore a sleeveless print shift from Anne Louise Roswald with a single strand of huge, shiny pearls. My skirt was above the knee and my hair has been the same colour for ages (that won't be changing). My concession to my great age was a pair of dark glasses and a chunky cardigan to cover my bingo wings. But I cannot pretend that things have not changed. Firstly, it isn't just me who's getting older. My daughter, nephews and nieces are now either at university or young professionals. So not only am I liberated from the management of a teenager, but there's a big bonus from letting go. I get great pleasure from hearing about their progress in their careers. Sometimes I'm even able to lob some ideas into their thinking – but only, I hope, when I'm asked to do so. The other remarkable thing is that I don't envy them one jot. I adored the beginning of my career, but I have no desire to go back there; maybe it's because I still have my own greasy pole to climb, or maybe I just couldn't face the rough-and-tumble existence that being at the bottom of the ladder entails. At least I was paid right from the start, avoiding the agonisingly long internships that are the lot of so many career starters now. But work is still an issue for us ageing, swinging sixties; that's the greasy pole. How long we want to go on working and, more importantly, how long we will be allowed to do so is a major obsession for us all. This has quite a lot to do with economics, and our deeply disappointing pensions, but few of us actually feel like retiring. I am outraged by the default retirement age, which forces so many into a retirement they aren't ready for: it's simply not right on any level that fit and willing 65-year-olds can be shown the door if they are performing well and want to work. We should all be able to choose when we retire and how: it should be gradual, with fewer days worked, perhaps in a different job, rather than being pushed out by an employer who simply can't be bothered to deal with the issue in a more sensitive and, above all, flexible way. Indeed, there is a long list of things that urgently need to be improved for older people: the number of people who are forced to sell their homes to pay for care is increasing every year; the numbers being forced onto pension benefit because of the lack of tax breaks on interest from their savings is also rising. Add to this the battles that are fought daily by many old people who are caring for an even older relative to get the support they need, and the ageism that is rampant in most public bodies, particularly in the NHS. This has become so bad that some old people are terrified of a hospital admission for fear of dying of neglect. So there is no lack of urgent fixes that are needed to be implemented by whichever government follows this one. And the grey vote will be the deciding factor in large numbers of parliamentary seats. For all these reasons and for the first time, Saga will be producing a manifesto for the election to help get some answers to these big questions. I am excited to be part of a demographic that needs to implement a sea change in the way the old are treated in this country. And if we want a halfway decent, dignified old age, we need to get moving. Happily, this is where social justice bumps into the self-interest of growing numbers of baby boomers; this force for change must prove irresistible. It's not all a battle, though. The delights of being 60 are numerous – and rather a well-kept secret that you don't discover until you get there. I've managed to cut down my working days, and it's had nothing but positive effects on my life. Having been a full-time desk jockey for nearly 40 years, working from home is utterly blissful. But the giddy freedom I enjoy is not something I could have handled when I was younger: I would have slept away the years or spent most of them in rehab – either financial or the other sort. My health is good – the creaking hasn't started yet – and there aren't many things I cannot do, although winning at competitive sports is no longer an impostor I have to deal with. And I am enjoying the safety in numbers: the large number of people crossing the Rubicon of their seventh decade makes it less scary, as well as making us all powerful. There are so many role models – Helen Mirren, Joan Bakewell, Jack Nicholson, Ken Clarke, to name a few – showing us how to pull off this decade, proving time and time again that our sixties should be as action-packed as previous ones. There are some things I absolutely refuse to do: these include flashing a bus pass (I keep it well hidden in a gold wallet), wearing my skirts below the knee and hanging the now essential glasses on a rope around my neck. But if I am not clever, or cool or stylish enough, there really is nothing I can be bothered to do about it. Lord, I am positively laid-back now, which is not something I have ever been accused of. Perhaps that's the coolest thing of all. [rc] Emma Soames is Editor at Large of 'Saga Magazine' © Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2009