To age is to droop – or be drooped?

Picture this.

You are joining a friend for lunch. The restaurant is on the 30th floor and offers spectacular views of the city you love. In the hope of persuading the maitresse d’ to give you a table by the window, you get there early. For reasons which need not detain us here, it is important to you that your friend has a specially pleasant time. A good table is secured. You check that the menu indeed contains a happy mix of vegetarian dishes. This is pivotal to the progress of the day.

The friend arrives. The lunch begins. It is too early for a calming apéritif. And so your inner comms-coach keeps rat-tat-tatting down your invisible ear-piece.

Whatever happens:

• Do not mention your recent Norovirus experience / omit any reference to your home bathroom and the now badly stained Norwegian tiles.
• Avoid any extended criticism of our national tax authorities, no matter how beastly they have recently been to you.
• Try hard not to drop any of your lunch onto your lap or down your chin – but if, through ranting with your mouth full, you accidentally spit some small pieces of sticky rice onto your friend’s cheek do not (!) try to brush them away with your hand.

Now to our tale. Does your engagement in this whole notional experience alter if you are aged 20?
Or 30? Or 40? Or 50? Or 60? Or 70? Or 80?

Is the imperative of not being a self-absorbed, self-indulgent prat to some degree contingent on how old you are?

Would our 30 year old be forgiven for still being, conversationally, a bit gauche?

Would our 70 year old be allowed a solipsistic spurt or two because age has bruised his manners and he feels these days as if an audience – any audience – is most certainly somehow deserved?

Well, no. Some standards are surely absolute.

And so, welcome to our theme. Clearly the fact that one is maybe grey and bald makes a difference to things. But what things? And when? Just how is age and ageing really and practically different? When is a measure of adjustment required, justified, necessary?

We can think of this in variable ways.

If I am in the market for vegan cocoa-rich chocolate or a stylish mountain bike or a new mobile phone or a cut-price Norwegian bathroom tile-set … does it matter to the selling enterprise that I am 70, 20, 50?

Well, maybe. Not sure…

And should governments /public authorities continue to offer price-and-service concessions to citizens due to their age?

Hard to be absolutist here….

And is it understandable if recruiters presume against the old hand in favour of the young thruster?

Yes. But. No. But. Yes. Er…

OK. Let’s stand back and discuss.

But before we do let’s pin the hard facts to the big wall.

In the UK, around 20% of the population are over-65 but only 10% of them are in employment.
In the USA, around 20% are over-65 and around 20% are in employment.
In France, around 20% are over-65 and while 32% of 60-64s are in employment this falls to 6% for the over-65s.
In Germany, around 20% are over-65 and around 6% are in employment.

(Sources : DeStatis, World Bank, Insee, PRB, ONS, BLS)

This is the very definition of slow-burn catastrophe, the collapsology of both growth and welfare-ism.
We move on…

Victimise this!

The praxis of modern ageing has inspired – not really the right word – so many advocacy groups all across the Western world. They tend to present similar features, repeat certain common themes, indulge in the same mantra-mania. To wit:

• Big brands and companies of all sorts are so bovine in their collective adoration of youth that they fail to notice how wealthy/interesting/active older generations have become.
• The average politician, of whatever hue, does not a) appreciate how demographic change is re-shaping the world or b) understand the special issues older folks face (or want to do anything serious about them).
• Older people are more likely than others to feel the cruel lash of social indifference : expressed in their differentially excessive loneliness, impoverishment, under-treated morbidity….
• Our media wilfully marginalise sexagenarians and those beyond, defining them only in imageries of wrinkled decrepitude or cynically rendering these humans totally invisible in advertising executions.

An expression of one or more of these claims is lying in your Twitter feed this very minute or in the newspaper feature you will read at your coffee-break or in a TV documentary you will half-watch this evening at home or in the agenda of a conference (on macro-economics, online marketing, mentoring, futurology, hiring practice, whatever…) that you will shortly be attending. In this world, to age is to be vitiated. And pitied. Ageing is a bullied child thus looking for a parent-redeemer.

So much of this whine is, of course, bunk-whine, old whine under blotched labels. But objective reality does not inhibit this cult of victimhood from poisoning public discourse, politics and, in its way, life itself. Nor does it stop the big cult from diverting energies and resources away from those problems-of-an-ageing-society which do really exist and from diluting the genuine opportunities that our ageing populations could enjoy.

Perhaps some examples….

Drop the dead dogma!

In 2019, AARP Research published yet one more study on the under/mis-representation of older citizens. From a “random sample of more than 1,000 online images from brands and thought leaders posted on news sites and social media with at least one million followers”, the conclusion was drawn that only 15% of the images were of over-50s (ie wholly unrepresentative of contemporary American demography). Not taking into account all those who tint, the sample thus also over-references the presence of grey hair; only 15% of all the over-50 images, moreover, show individuals “with clear skin”. Some 28% of all images of this segment can apparently be construed as “negative”.

Other such organisations and authors regularly research into the national conversation the same incrementalising outrage, so much lo-cal clickbait for the left easily aghast, them still in their dressing-gowns at 10.45am, Sunday supplement and Moccamaster to hand.

But, of course, really not that many people get outraged at all. Complaining about the common ways of visualising older people is like complaining that postcards of Venice show an awful lot of water or that fashion-week catwalks parade a lot of beauty. Maybe we should care – but often we, the masses, are just not Hamptons or Hampstead enough.

Also like many other organisations, AARP regularly complains that discrimination against the older job-seeker is sinfully common. And yet, so goes the song (endlessly covered), the experience banked by that older worker is just so valuable to firms and to the national economy. Why is all that human value being wilfully ignored? Why are legislators not cracking down?

Well, just take this thought:

Soccer fans everywhere are rightly suspicious of the word “experienced” when applied to a player their favourite club is about to sign. As in the club press-release this morning : Jock is an experienced midfielder (equally comfortable in defensive roles) who reads the game well after his thirteen consecutive seasons as a first-team regular with Stenhousemuir FC. “Experienced” is so often a synonym for : been-round-the-block / not-likely-to-adjust-to-challenges / wants-a-paycheck / be-gone-soon.

Good boy-bands fill arenas all over the world; who wants to see deep wrinkles in the big-screen close-up? In younger days, I used to do a mean Bob Dylan on the guitar and mouth organ. Well, good for you. Can we have some Taylor Swift now, please?

It is not that recruiters are blind to social reality and doggedly insensitive (though some will be, one can be sure). But the blunt fact is that if I am looking for a job at 55 then I am a different person (operating in a different labour market) from the one I was at 31. My social capital is different and, yes, it has probably been depleted in relation to contemporary market demands. If I write a promising detective story when I am 23, my publisher might well, $-signs in her eyes, see twenty good-selling novels to come from me through the decades; but if I write my mémoires when I am 65, what long-term revenue, even if they are hot as a comet , can be expected from me for that publisher? Must give us pause.

Nobody will benefit at all from the preachy presumption that there is some band of regulatory cavalry waiting, if only it could be unleashed by our indolent politicians, to ride to the rescue of a troubled (and too easily outmanoeuvred) generation of work-hungry oldies. So much age-advocacy sees career/job-experience as a wonderful treasure – a pent-up longevity-dividend waiting to rinse inefficiencies out of a discriminatory labour market.

Well, yes, no, maybe…

Of course, the market is often unfair and, of course, anti-discrimination measures should be enforced. Too many people in too many professions are certainly forced to retire too early. Undoubtedly, much grey talent is shamefully scrap-heaped. But hand-wringing might be a therapy; however, it is not a strategy. Nor is hyperbolising the unexploded windfall that Western economies will enjoy when we all grow up / abolish all discriminations / set all that oldie energy loose on a flailing job market.

In the UK, for instance, there is abroad a version of the longevity-dividend narrative which is more H G Wells than John Maynard Keynes. The International Longevity Centre says (2019) that “Tackling the barriers to older people’s spending could add 2% (or £47 billion) to UK GDP a year, by 2040”. The windfall could be huge but for “issues like inaccessible high streets, poorly designed products, and age discriminatory attitudes”. Well, any research that says there is a pot of grey gold temporarily stuck under the rainbow which we could unlock if public policy was not so myopic or downright stupid does not get the Rinkli Funstaz endorsement.

For one thing, it is going to be mighty hard to keep majorities in paid work – majorities across the ages in our entire western-society populations – over the next two generations thanks to the irresistible march of robotics and AI. Job creation in many (but not all) western economies has sustained itself well but we are here to tell you that this will not last. Nobody will be talking about the Longevity-Dividend in 2040. No more than they will be talking about jobs-for-life or DVDs or bucket-lists or defined-benefit-pensions or (sadly, no matter their current popularity) the Pussycat Dolls.

Like Sully says : Can we get serious now?

The older and much experienced worker deserves privileged cosseting in the labour market no more than he deserves a friendly ear when he is being a monstrous lunchtime boor.

21st century life is telling newly baptised western sexagenarians that they may well face a crisis of personal income availability, a crisis maybe lasting 20+ years; that they should do whatever it takes (short of waiting for any leadership from Godot) to lever themselves into jobs (even if it means abandoning hard-won qualifications and skills and over-established pay aspirations); that they must become born-again entrepreneurs to ruthlessly exploit any fee-paying opportunity; that they should avoid charitable but energy-devouring volunteering if – likely to be the case for millions – they can work + are falling under financial pressure as the years roll by.

And they should not share or believe there is something to be harvested in the manufactured outrage about insensitive advertising or “poorly designed products” or a world that does not care.



  • Hi James

    Fantastic writing, as usual.

    I am 66 and am limited in the contribution I can make due to family commitments, but I sincerely believe that helping people take control of their own lives though self-employment or entrepreneurship, particularly when employment opportunities are limited or non-existent, is of value. I try to enable people to become self-sufficient so they have the skills to survive in a world that has other priorities.

    Best wishes

    Viv (Silver Startups)

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