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.

The comfort of strangers

Neil Bell and Gillian Chardet

Neil Bell and Gillian Chardet

Gillian had a house; Neil needed somewhere to live. Gillian was worried about being alone and the responsibility of keeping things working; Neil was largely retired, and could fix leaking taps.

Gillian is 88, Neil 61, and they found each other through Homeshare, one of several local authority experiments to see whether people with space to spare might benefit from having someone living with them, not as a paying lodger but as a helping one. Today the pair of them share Gillian’s beautiful red-brick converted barn in a West Sussex village, with its beamed sitting room and fruit trees in the garden. No money changes hands, but Neil drives Gillian to doctor’s appointments and the supermarket and provides practical help around the house. He is a reassuring and useful presence, both physically and psychologically.

‘We both put our names forward for Homeshare and, after vetting, it was decided we might be a good match,’ Gillian says. ‘We met first in a neutral place, at the house of old friends of mine, then we had a couple of meals out. We haven’t got a terrific lot of things in common, but perhaps that’s why we get on. I think I get more out of it than Neil does. I’m very difficult to share a kitchen with, but Neil’s fitted in with my funny arrangements. I know I couldn’t possibly live with at least half of my friends. It’s all down to him that we get on.’

It can be hard enough living with people you know well, even those you love. Homes are filled with emotion and vulnerability and assertions of identity. But this arrangement evidently works, perhaps because Neil travels light. Gillian’s home remains filled with her stuff; he has his own room, including a toilet and washbasin.

‘I think if I had to share Gillian’s bathroom – to move in my shaving stuff and toothbrush – that might be difficult,’ he says. ‘I get up first and make porridge but other than that we don’t eat the same food. I’m coeliac and have to eat funny food and I wouldn’t inflict that on anyone.’ They do, however, usually sit down to eat together.

Neil is a former builder, traveller and shiatsu practitioner. He meditates for an hour each morning; perhaps his spirituality helps him keep the distance that Gillian needs to go on being herself in her own home.

Homeshare looks in theory like an excellent solution to two dovetailing problems: older or disabled people who don’t want to live alone, and others, probably younger, without much money or anywhere to live, who are willing to offer practical help in exchange for a roof over their heads. Similar schemes operate in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain and the USA. The attractions of cross-border homesharing for young travellers or students are obvious and, internationally, Homeshare is much more popular than it is here.

The three local authorities that have experimented with homesharing in Britain have found, however, that marketing and running the schemes is expensive. Applicants must be interviewed and vetted and undergo police checks; they must meet each other and negotiate their likes and dislikes and be monitored fairly intensively for the first month and occasionally thereafter. West Sussex, which brought Gillian and Neil together, was funding a worker to manage the scheme but is now outsourcing the coordination of those homeshares for which it remains responsible and not pursuing any more.

Keith Hipwood is Gillian and Neil’s Homeshare coordinator, his work partly paid for by West Sussex, and partly by NAAPS, the charity that supports small, community based care schemes.  ‘When Homeshare works, it works brilliantly,’ Keith says. ‘But when I took over the West Sussex scheme they had only four matches, following three years’ work. There was a waiting list of 40 people, but West Sussex is a big county and the householders were in the wrong place or not the right matches. Homeshare tends not to become a priority for social services because the process is too lengthy to stop someone going into a home after a crisis; it’s difficult to demonstrate its usefulness in that sense.’

Keith’s view is that Homeshare works best in a clearly defined locality or in dense urban settings. It is perhaps no coincidence that of the three local authorities that have experimented with it – West Sussex, Wiltshire and Oxford – the latter has had most success: it is the most urban, a place where property is expensive, and has a large student population.

Some privately-run Homeshare schemes exist, and perhaps they offer a more promising business model. They usually require a monthly payment from both householder and homesharer; if the schemes can generate enough volume, a coordinator’s salary becomes viable. In London and other urban centres, homesharing has been particularly attractive to foreign nationals, who are happy to undertake work around the house in exchange for somewhere to stay, perhaps even in a rather expensive part of town. NAAPS’ immediate ambition, having recently over the coordination of Homeshare in Britain, is to network the various fragmented London schemes and demonstrate that in the right setting, marketed less as a solution for social services than as an affordable housing choice, it can really work.

Neil and Gillian have been together for two years, long for a homeshare. (Many are fixed-term contracts of six months or a year.) Gillian hopes their arrangement will last forever, but they both recognise that if she develops personal care needs, that will be the end of it, because that’s not what homesharing is about. ‘He didn’t come here to look after me,’ Gillian says, ‘and anyway I’d be absolutely hopeless at being looked after by anybody.’

Being a homesharer does impose constraints on Neil – he tends not to stay out with his partner overnight, and she doesn’t stay in his room because he feels that would unbalance the household. ‘I’ve had friends over to supper and once or twice someone has stayed over, but I don’t treat the house exactly as I would if it were my own,’ Neil says. ‘I became a bit of a nomad after I stopped working, and I suppose that has made me quite flexible.’

‘I don’t mind if Neil has people here,’ Gillian says. ‘I can talk to most people, and his friends always seem very compatible. He’s got his interests and beliefs and I like hearing about them. It’s been marvellous. He’s got his life outside and he comes and goes, but I’m always happier when he’s here.’