Monday, 22 February 2010

Crime of the half-century

Later this year I'll be 50.

How the hell did that happen?

One minute it was Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Brain Salad Surgery, then it was, “I think it's about time you considered cosmetic surgery”. There must have been something in between but for the life of me I can't remember exactly what. A couple of years in drama school in London, a revolutionary time in South Africa, a decade and a half in Spain and here I am.

Must admit that, despite everything, I have no actual intention of doing what I have long threatened on my 50th birthday, that is disappear under the duvet with enough paracetemol to end it all, plus just enough travel sickness tablets to avoid sicking the whole lot up and having to start all over again. I've looked it all up on EXIT's website, readers.

No, I really can't be arsed to get too worked up about the dreaded half-century. I'm a baby boomer for God's sake and, as we post-war generation say, 50 is the new 30. I have high hopes for my latter years, especially having just witnessed the recent demise of a family friend who died aged 102, just one week after she gave up working in the family fish and chip shop. With an example like that, moaning about turning 50 seems impossibly wimpish and ungrateful.

What I have in mind is a future like Leonard Cohen's, a man who, despite a lifetime spent cultivating some ruinous habits like smoking, taking Class A drugs and drinking far too much, was only deterred from undertaking yet another spectacularly ambitious world tour at the age of 76 by knackering his back during the commission of a strenuous yoga move. And the action that his, admittedly orthopaedic, bed has seen! If I can muster the requisite amount of optimism I'm thinking of having one of those deli-counter ticket dispensers fitted on the foot of mine. Or, as Lenny C himself has said, there'll be a meter on my bed that will disclose what everybody knows.

So it came as a shock this week when my employers submitted my date of birth to the Powers That Be and were told that they would be given a sort of tax break for agreeing to provide me with work. Naturally I was delighted for them and impressed that the government had the foresight, during this recession which has had even more of a negative effect on Spain's economy than Britain's, to encourage employment.

Then I had time to digest this information and my mood darkened.

As a professional writer with more than two decades of varied experience and a postgraduate qualification under her belt it was a shock to realise that, at least as far as the government is concerned, I'm some kind of a bureaucratic loss leader. As they say in Private Eye, shurely shome mishtake.

While the issue of an ageing population is encouraging some very heated debates about the raising of the official retirement age, it seems that there has been very little alteration in the status of middle-aged workers. We're still considered so undesirable that prospective employers need to be offered incentives to tap into our knowledge and experience. In other words, while state old-age pensions will kick in later, there has been no improvement in the image of the older worker.

What are they worried about? That we'll take so long to glue our dentures in that we'll be constantly late for work? That the foyers of office buildings will be awash with Zimmer frames and mobility scooters? That we'll ask for longer tea breaks so we can change our incontinence pants?

Sorry to come over all Dame Joan Bakewell, but this attitude has to change – and fast. How are we going to survive financially if older employees are such a ghastly prospect that companies need to be offered bungs to take them on? I'm hoping to work until I drop – will probably have to, in fact - but the current climate scarcely looks encouraging.

I'm all for young employees, of course - where would be without their new ideas and enthusiasm? Yet we also need to rely on the experience and wisdom of the older worker. We're constantly being told that the baby boomers will make sure that attitudes will undergo a revolution as they start to collect their bus passes, but this change seems very slow in coming.

While fashion and cosmetic make-over features in the tabloids and magazines tell women that they can still look fabulous way into their seventies and beyond, it's difficult not to feel that it would be even more helpful if there could be a few more hints as to how they could be incredibly useful and valuable in the workforce. There's not much point in telling us how we should dress to avoid exposing crepey necks and wrinkled cleavage if the fundamental problem of ageing – our lowered status in the employment stakes – still hasn't been addressed.

It's not asking for much, surely. I'm a writer not a mud wrestler. As long as I retain my mental faculties there is no reason why I shouldn't continue to work until death and decomposition intervene. P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Drabble, Margaret Forster and Maeve Binchy are just a few pensioner authors that spring to mind. Mary Wesley only published her first novel when she was in her seventies, while Catherine Cookson continued to work until she was very elderly.

Early retirement is now a luxury that few outside the banking sector can afford, so we need to be making the most of our extended working years.

It's time for a radical change and this (late) baby boomer, at least, is up for a fight.


  1. Applause!


    Terrific, timely essay (as I squint to read your tiny, tidy type --- with my first pair of reading glasses)

    I am as passionate about Leonard Cohen as I am about dark chocolate. Saw him LIVE in London in 2008. Best concert ever.

    Where I hail from, we had a gang of oldsters who called themselves The Gray Panthers. They were a lively, lusty, smart group of (mostly) women who refused to be made silent. They spoke out on everything we're speaking about today. Aging with dignity. Work with dignity. And yes, at some point dying with dignity.

    I have long thought about starting a brilliant, creative driven consulting business, made up of folks over 50, called Gray Matter. We'd sell our brain tissue to all the businesses who forgot about the written part of their business. And the human part.

    Might be just the thing for your 50th birthday, KJ.

    Viva La Vida!

  2. I am madly envious about you managing to see Lenny C - am hoping maybe to be able to catch up with him when he finally does take up the challenge of yet another World Tour!

    Gray Matter sounds good - would definitely join in with that!

    Had my first pair of varifocals last year. Unfortunately the astigmatism means that I can't just get away with reading specs. It takes some adjustment but it's been worth it in the end as I finally manage a trip to the supermarket WITHOUT taking the goggles off all the time to read the small print on packets.

    The brain still works, though! :o)

  3. Well, my dear sweet KJ...LOL....50 isn't so bad if you still have your mind. :) least now when we go to work, babysitters are no longer required and school holidays matter not.

    Personally, I would love to be wealthy enough to quit work and isn't so :(

    Just remember....use your saw a thing on TV last week that encouraged the frequent use to keep them in top performance....and lets face it......are you really a tramp when you get to the nursing home and screw everything because you have lost your mind? I think not :), the staff will just say " That's KJ, she's really harmless and and brings a lot of joy to the men in here". Do you really care if you get a communicable disease at age 102 because you used your condom as a party balloon?

    Lets face it...old age has its perks :)

  4. Hear hear! A volunteer pal of mine is 65 and would like to work but has been booted out of her job. She's an active, fit, intelligent woman but she's not permitted to earn a crust! It's RIDICULOUS.