In many ways, this is the age of the glamorous pensioner. Glossy
magazines carry features on healthy, wealthy 65-year-olds, complete
with pictures of shiny grey-haired women in tortuous yoga
At the same time, a slew of older public figures from Joan Bakewell
to Jane Fonda, Harold Pinter to John Berger show us how a life rich
in experience, politics, love, work, and even many disappointments
can lead to something approaching genuine wisdom. Fame sweetens our
interest, of course.
Some of the most apparently respected older figures in western
democracies are those we did not choose nor can get rid of. While a
now elderly and frail Margaret Thatcher, one of the most discussed
figures in modern political history, is treated with indifference
and occasional disdain, our silent impassive Queen continues to
garner a bewildering respect.
And it was interesting to watch coverage of the recent death of
Pope John Paul II, if only for the glimpse it gave us of a society
in which its older members might be revered not ignored. Day after
day the television news dwelled on the dwindling health of this
frail old man.
After his death, there were excited discussions about the plans and
policies of his successor, Pope Benedict. Transitional pope he may
be, but how often do we give any serious time to analysing the
future of a 78 year old?
But, of course, all these public stories are exceptions that prove
the hidden, more private rule; old age can be grim. It is more
likely to be grim if you are poor: one in five pensioners, most of
them women, live below the official poverty line. It’s more likely
to be grim if you are in a residential care home, where rates of
depression soar to 40 per cent. It’s more likely to be grim when
your friends start to die and there’s no one to remember who you
were, what you did, how you lived.
But it’s especially grim if you feel unvalued, and unseen, in the
widest sense. In his recent best seller Status Anxiety the writer
Alain de Botton talks about the two great struggles in people’s
lives. The first is the quest for sexual love, a well charted
journey. But there is a second, equally important search for “love
from the world”, what we crudely called status. Without fulfilment
of that need, people feel just as invisible and unworthy as without
But “love from the world” – to use de Botton’s phrase – is a tricky
concept precisely because our definition of what makes a valuable
life, what the world deems loveable, has shifted so dramatically
over the decades.
A woman growing up 50 years ago might have felt that tending a home
and raising a family was a significant contribution to human
Today, you are nobody if you don’t hold down a job as well. Only 30
years ago, there was much less emphasis on individual achievement,
power and status, more value attached to collective activity,
whether it be within a political party, a trade union or a church.
In place of political and religious faith has grown another more
intense, nebulous, form of faith; faith in self, faith in personal
Other concepts have faded. The idea of usefulness, making a modest
contribution, doing a good job of work, developing a craft, a skill
or even a profession. The bureaucratisation and increasingly rigid
control of public sector professions such as teaching and nursing
have robbed older people of many of their potentially creative
From another angle, the cancer of minor celebrity has chipped away
at the idea of purely private endeavour. Abi Titmuss is typical of
our age: a nurse turned reality TV star and pin up. Here, de
Botton’s definition of “love from the world” has become literal
truth: the god of media celebrity presumes that millions of people
vaguely knowing what someone looks like in a bikini is worth more
than teaching a child to read or helping someone to recover from an
operation. Yet Titmuss was recently quoted as saying she longed for
a job in which she could “actually do something”.
Parents know only too well what a corroding effect these mixed up
values have on younger people. But I suspect they have an equally
dispiriting affect on older people, their life work largely done,
Only the strongest individuals, I suspect, manage to hold onto a
personal sense of worth, about past and present, a positive
interpretation of a life often spent pursuing goals now considered
unworthy, futile, failed or just plain uninteresting.
Melissa Benn is a journalist and writer