Wrinkle alert! Switch off the telly

Miriam O'Reilly

Miriam O'Reilly

There is little to add to the welter of commentary that has been written about Miriam O’Reilly since the former Countryfile presenter won her case for age discrimination against the BBC.

Except….pretty much all the comment has supported O’Reilly, whose sacking is widely seen as an injustice, her stand brave and proper. The BBC has been ridiculed and rebuked for its senior executives’ weirdly complacent defence that this is just how things are done in television.

Given that response, on what basis did the executives decide that we want to see only very youthful people on screen? Why was Botox recommended to O’Reilly before she was sacked? Do they research these things at the BBC? Does anyone actually investigate viewers’ preferences? If so, and they are responding to them, they should tell us that we are being hypocritical. If not, if their insistence on youth is arbitrary and whimsical, they should be ashamed of themselves.

The population is ageing. The average age of BBC viewers is 50 – customers who are repeatedly insulted by the absence of people their own age on screen, presumably on the grounds of being too ugly or unpleasant to contemplate.

The pleasure that has been taken in O’Reilly’s vindication suggests that you can tell older people that they should be invisible and silent only for so long. You will reach a point where imposing your own prejudiced notions of what is attractive and acceptable can no longer persuade people that they are too past it to matter. It  just makes them angry.

Normal service resumes

Judi Dench and The QueenNormal service is about to resume – with apologies to anyone who noticed that Christmas has been quiet. In the meantime, here are some links:

First, a piece I wrote for the Daily Telegraph, pegged to the news that nearly a fifth of people in the UK will live to be 100.

Second, a New York Times op-ed article by Susan Jacoby, which touches on the longevity/morbidity debate: will longer lives be lived in good health, or will they mean longer periods of illness? Truth is, we don’t know. The latter is an alarming prospect, yet, especially since Shipman, very few doctors appear willing to debate publicly the limits to their obligations to keep people alive.

Third, an article from The Economist suggesting that happiness begins at the age of 46 – though if you’re Ukrainian, it appears you’ll have to wait until your mid-60s. A look at the burgeoning field of happiness indices, with a bit of speculation as to why happiness seems to grow, or at least return, as people age.

And last but not least, a report card on his generation by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer as the first baby boomers reach 65. This is a much broader take on the effects of the boomers than the usual economic analyses, taking in war, the environment and poverty. Personal, beautifully written, and optimistic.

Older people want to shop shock

shopping trolleyIt is a paradox that older people make up a large and growing number of consumers – presenting a tremendous opportunity – yet they are almost entirely ignored by marketing executives. Over-50s need and want to buy stuff like anyone else, but some 90% of marketing spend is directed at younger people.

A report out today from the International Longevity Centre (ILC), published by Age UK, attempts to tease out some of the reasons behind this. These turn out to be a complex nexus of ignorance, prejudice, myopia (metaphorical as well as literal) and ineptitude. What’s more, according to the report’s author David Sinclair, many of the market barriers he has identified are exactly the same as those that were first noted 50 years ago. We may be a maturing population but our marketing techniques are going nowhere.

The Golden Economy is compiled from existing literature and new research and is full of ideas. The causes of market failure being so complex, unfortunately the report can offer no single explanation of what’s gone wrong or how to put it right. One of its clearest messages is that significant numbers of older people are spending less than their incomes would appear to allow: it’s not simply lack of money holding back spending.

The true barriers are best understood from anecdotal evidence: the housebound man who would like to buy by mail order but can’t get to the Post Office to return goods; the blind woman who would like to buy stylish clothes, but has no one to tell her how they look when she tries them on. In many European cities, over-50s are one of the main groups eating out, yet restaurant menus are printed in such a way that it is virtually impossible for anyone over 50 to read them without glasses.

Often these obstacles are the result of a simple lack of thought, of designers and marketers failing to put themselves in the shoes of their consumers. At the root of that lies ageism – a reluctance to think about getting older, presumably in the hope that, if ignored, it might simply go away. A vicious circle sets in: advertisers don’t pay attention to the older market, so the media don’t see any need to cover or address older people, so older people feel they don’t matter and have no right to assert themselves. Too often, they blame their own shortcomings for the lack of services (‘What else can I expect at my age?’)

There are dismayingly few examples of good practice, although David Sinclair cited an interesting case at the launch event for the report. Some time ago, Google doubled the size of its entry box without explanation. The only clue to what was going on came from a small blog by a designer, who revealed the move was meant to make the search engine more accessible. Good inclusive design, as has been noted again and again, is almost unnoticeable because it benefits everyone.

Girls shopping

This is how you have to look when you go shopping

There is a real problem in marketing to older consumers, in that no one wants to think of themselves as old, or even ‘older’. So you have to take age out of the equation while thinking of what works for people who for any number of reasons are not standard, or fully fit. But in a profoundly ageist society, that’s a big ask. Think of shopping, and what do you visualise? I’d be surprised if it’s not twentysomething girls with carrier bags: shopping is presented as an exclusively youthful pleasure.

Yet older people need to eat and care for their homes and wear clothes and have a good time as much as anyone else. This report is a useful reminder of that, while also painting a rather daunting picture of how far we have to go to give everyone fair and easy access to the goods they need.

ILC report

Worth remembering

Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron

If you’ve ever rummaged frantically through the accumulated rubbish in your brain for someone’s name at a party, you will relish Nora Ephron’s latest book, I Remember Nothing. Ephron, who wrote When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, Heartburn and, most recently, Julie and Julia (which she also directed) has published a new collection of blogs, columns and jottings, in several of which she addresses the depradations of age with her characteristic wit and verve.

The articles are of variable length and some seem rather more tossed off than others, but Ephron is incapable of being boring. The opening piece, which gives the book its title, is stylishly constructed and full of good jokes about the awfulness of losing your memory: ‘I used to think my problem was that my disk was full; now I’m forced to conclude that the opposite is true: it’s becoming empty.’ Ephron goes into a store to buy a book about Alzheimer’s Disease and forgets its name; she spots a woman in a Las Vegas Mall and wonders why she recognises her, only to recollect that she’s her sister, the person she is there to meet.

In one of the best passages, she describes attending an anti-Vietnam march in her youth – or rather, not attending it because she spent most of the day in a hotel room having sex with the lawyer she was dating at the time.

Norman Mailer wrote an entire book about this march, called The Armies of the Night. It was 288 pages long. It won the Pulitzer Prize. And I can barely write two paragraphs about it. If you knew Norman Mailer and me and were asked to guess which of us cared more about sex, you would, of course, pick Norman Mailer. How wrong you would be.

Ephron blogs for The Huffington Post and the pieces in the book reflect a wide range of interests – her love of journalism; the alcoholism of her parents; her online Scrabble addiction; and a moving piece about her identity having been defined for most of her adult life by the fact of being divorced. But it’s the pieces about ageing (Ephron is 69) that bookend the selection and give it resonance. ‘You lose close friends,’ she writes, ‘and discover one of the worst truths of old age: they’re irreplaceable.’ This is a particular, spiky, charming take on ageing, fiercely individual but very recognisable.Book jacket

A good reason to get older

Picasso's Mousquetaire a la pipe

Mousquetaire a la pipe, oil on canvas, by Pablo Picasso, painted when he was a week shy of his 87th birthday

There was a fascinating story in the LA Times recently about an artists’ community which convinced me that I now know how I want to live as I get older.

Burbank Senior Artists’ Colony is a five-storey building in Los Angeles, offering one-bedroom apartments for rent to people aged over 55. The building also houses a digital film editing lab, galleries, an outdoor performance area, and art and sculpture studios.

Retired dental surgeon Gene Schklair, 80, sells the sculptures he makes at the Colony for up to $18,000 each. Suzanne Knode, another resident, took her first screenwriting course there in her early 60s. Her film about an elderly woman who robs a convenience store while balancing on her walker was cast and made by fellow residents. It has since made it onto the film festival circuit.

America has already seen a trend for senior housing communities on college campuses, offering residents and students the benefits of intergenerational contact and, increasingly, learning programmes for residents to study something new or take a further degree – as, for example, at Lasell Village.

Developments of this kind have been encouraged by a growing understanding of the benefits to health and happiness of learning new skills as you age (although this can make learning sound a bit like eating bran, good for you but not very pleasant). Art, too, requires study, to develop technique; it also offers a way to scrutinise and understand the world and a mode of self-expression; it is ageless, in all senses of the word.

In this country, there is a growing interest in art produced by older people, not just as therapy, but as mind-expanding pleasure for artists and audience. The idea that you could be creative at all hours of the day and night makes ageing something actively to aspire to. In California, two more Colony communities are in development. Let’s hope some enterprising developer sets up something similar in Britain soon.

Life: slide or roundabout?

roundaboutSomething enormous is happening. Two enormous things, in fact, and in time they may find a way to work together. That was the conclusion of this afternoon, which I spent in a very interesting discussion with people in cities all over the world, thanks (again) to Cisco.

One of the enormous things is demographic shift; the other is technology. Often they seem at odds (we hear that old people aren’t interested in computers, and that, anyway, technology is no substitute for face-to-contact). But they are not, in reality, opposite trends; together, they could transform our sense of who we are, change our understanding of what it means to live a long and rewarding life.

Thanks to Cisco’s telepresence technology, participants from Toronto, Washington, Almere, London, Geneva, Manchester and Brussels talked about ageing for 90 minutes without having to go anywhere much. (I got a bus.) And very interesting it was too – especially the point made by John Beard of the World Health Organisation, that we think in a thoroughly anachronistic way about the shape of human lives: youth and education, then work, then retirement. We imagine a life rather as a kind of slide, which you climb to the top (actually, this is my metaphor, but I think I’m representing him fairly) and then slither down through physical and mental and financial decline to death.

In fact, it would make much more sense to think of life as a series of roundabouts, which you could jump on and off at different points, dropping in and out of paid work to have children, write a book, volunteer, look after elderly parents, do a postgraduate degree, learn something new.

We need, in other words, to rethink life to account for the fact that people are living much longer and, on the whole, more healthily. This would doubtless help us make sense of the dead years, Marc Freedman’s ‘identity void’ between 55 and 80 when people aren’t really sure what they’re for.

It would also make far more sense for women. Annemarie Jorritsma, the mayor of Almere in the Netherlands, said she couldn’t believe that women are still expected to have children and forge their careers at the very same time. The only reason for this, when it is perfectly possible to work effectively into your seventies, is that it happens to suit thirtysomething men. Anne Marie says she never imagined she get to the age of 60 and this ridiculous paradox still be the case.

We have to hope that, somehow, economic necessity will help us to start thinking in terms of roundabouts , because it’s pretty clear we’d be a lot better off if we could all get off the unproductive and soul-destroying slides.

France vs America: who’s got it right about retirement?

Sartre and de Beauvoir

The French way of life? Sartre and de Beauvoir

Watching the street protests against raising the retirement age in France this week, I’ve felt oddly torn. All those students and workers look so glamorous in their intensity, so stylishly 1968-and-manning-the-barricades.

As doomsayers in Britain increasingly predict wars between the generations, it’s hard to imagine young people here standing up for their elders in the way of the young Frenchman on the news who claimed to be marching for the right of older people to do nothing: ‘There is a time when you work,’ he explained, ‘and a time when you rest.’ The British fantasy of French culture – food, wine, sex, a bit of philosophy and literature – does of course make the idea of French ‘rest’ seem extremely enticing.

Perhaps, I started to think, all those books coming out of the United States about an emerging stage of life between 50 and 80 – of new kinds of work, wisdom, productivity and spiritual and emotional reward – derive from a peculiarly American way of looking at the world, in which work is the ultimate good? Perhaps the attempt to construct a new life phase, of what we might call ‘wise work’, derives from a puritan work ethic/capitalist misapprehension that identity only really comes from employment?

In America, and, latterly, Britain, there is a developing narrative of the old as ‘greedy geezers’, unaffordable with their massive health and pension bills, needing to get back to work – except of course that they’re obsolete, opinionated, inflexible and haven’t got a clue about anything that’s going on.

This unattractive generational prejudice stems in part from an odd assumption that work is our highest calling. Not being able to put down your BlackBerry is a badge of pride; an empty diary is near-death. Older people can only have validity if they find a new way of being busy.

Unfortunately for the French, their alternative social contract looks increasingly rigid and unsustainable. You can’t have a thriving global economy in which lots of perfectly competent people do nothing except buy cheese and discuss existentialism simply because they happen to have reached a particular age.

In the end, of course, everyone is a little bit right: the French in acknowledging that work as currently organised is often rather thin and mean and reductive and anti-culture; and the Americans in looking for work at a later stage of life that would be none of these things, but would bring a deeper satisfaction and sense of contribution to the future. Their great insight is that longevity isn’t simply a matter of years tacked on at the end, but means that we are becoming a different kind of human than any that has existed before, with a need for a different rhythm of life and a new sense of life stages.

Having been writing about older people for a while now, it seems to me that quite often the best way to think about the ageing population is not to think about it at all. We want people to work longer? Then we need to think about work throughout the life course. People only want to stop work if what they do is demeaning, exhausting and undermining. There’s no inherent reason why it should be. Why not aim for rewarding and satisfying and creative work for everyone, with time off when it makes sense, rather than all at the end? Now that would be something worth taking to the streets for.