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    The alpha boomers, the Independent on Sunday, 22nd May 2011

    Follow the link below to find visuals for this feature, including a 66 year old beauty queen…

    http://tinyurl.com/3qn84tk

    Consider Mick Jagger. A decade ago, when Mick was 57, we openly wondered how much longer he could possibly keep it up. A pop star? In his fifties? It just wasn’t rock n roll. In 2011 the question itself seems strangely dated. Age has merely added patina to the ineffable cool of the Stones, who last toured as recently as 2007, and these days nobody is calling for Jagger’s retirement. With a birthday placing him at the very forefront of the baby boomer cohort, Mick is also in the vanguard of a wholesale redefinition of our experiences and perceptions of ageing.

     

    We live in a notoriously youth-obsessed culture, with fear of old age joining fear of fat to produce an ‘anti-ageing’ industry which finds a ready market of paranoid consumers. Then there’s the widespread discrimination felt so keenly by those, especially women, over 40. Yet if Jagger is anything to go by perhaps the very generation that invented the cult of youth might also be the cohort to debunk it. Youth culture’s brutal built-in obsolescence (we all, in the end, grow old) may finally be a reason to interrogate its usefulness – especially when, demographers say, by 2020 half of us will be over 50.

     

    The term ‘alpha boomer’ was coined in the States to describe the 55-64 year old age group which is currently the fastest-growing demographic in that nation. Alpha boomers enjoy America’s second-highest median income, spend more money on goods and services and own more ipads and smartphones than any other age group. Over here, too, according to market research carried out by Beta, ‘the 50-plus market will soon be the biggest, richest and most influential in the UK.’

     

    More to the point, these are the very guys and gals who rejected ‘intergenerational solidarity within class’, explains sociologist of ageing Dr Chris Gilleard, in favour of ‘an alliance with others of their age group’. The youthquake was born. As that post-war generation hits their fifties and sixties, they may have left behind their chronological youth, but they’ve carried within them the same culture, says Gilleard, of ‘alertness, vitality and authenticity’. If the alpha boomers have got anything to do with it, ageing will never be the same again.

     

    I can’t claim to be a boomer – I was born in 1967 – but with 50 edging ever closer, I’m certainly fascinated by the trail they’re blazing. As life expectancy increases to 100 and health and well-being in later life improves, 50 can justly be considered the start of a ‘second half’ in the match of life which is likely to be as enthralling and decisive as the first. That shift gives rather a different complexion to the phrase ‘mid-life crisis’, which was coined to describe the tragic flailings of those who fear, not just that the first and best part of life is gone, but also that all the important decisions, peak experiences, emotional highs and sexual thrills are also over. Men and women in the grip of mid-life crises are in denial, or so it was said, about their own mortality, something no Harley-Davidson or decree absolute could avert.

     

    I’ve been accused of something similar; in the four years since I hit 40 I have left my marriage, fallen in love with a younger man, quit drinking, started writing my novel, done Glastonbury for the first time, got the boob job I’ve always promised myself, gone into therapy and begun to learn how to enjoy my own company. I also know how to check the oil in my car. You might call all that upheaval, some of it intensely painful and difficult for everyone concerned, a crisis; I call it a recognition that life is short, and that 40 is not too late to fix the stuff that isn’t working. And yes, I buy clothes at Topshop and H&M, go to clubs and gigs, dabble in finest grade MDMA, am fitter than I was at 24 and occasionally entertain myself working my very best MILFy looks.

     

    Ironically, I now feel younger than I did at 37, when, pregnant with my second child, I remember confiding to a friend my fears that I would never get back into the job market after the birth because I would be ‘nearly 40’. I think I regarded the arrival of my grandchildren as the next truly momentous event in an existence that had served its reproductive purpose, an idea almost as laughable as the one I vividly remember having at 24, that I was much too grown up, sensible and frankly square to get wasted on E and whizz in a muddy field somewhere.  Talk about age apartheid.

     

    My point, I suppose, is that I’m no longer inclined to rule out choices, interests, activities and experiences because it is ‘too late’ or they seem ‘age-inappropriate’. Nor do I regard it as a catastrophe that my life hasn’t followed a simple linear narrative of career, marriage, kids and retirement. In that sense I have a lot in common with the fiftysomethings targeted by a new website called High50 (pronounce it like Hawaii 5-0). The brainchild of Beta advertising agency founder Robert Campbell, High50 was launched to meet the needs and interests of what he identified as a whole new breed of 50 to 65 year olds (fascinatingly, they are the fastest growing demographic on Facebook and Twitter). ‘It used to be the case that you had one career, one wife and one family and you retired to the seaside at 65. That was the path,’ says Campbell. ‘But we are now living and working so much longer, that fifty has become an opportunity for major life change. People come out as gay, or get divorced. They become inner rather than outer directed; post-50, you do what you want to do, not what other people want you to do. Fifty to 75 is potentially our golden age.’

     

    A ‘sexy, cool, interesting and relevant’ alternative for fiftysomethings who couldn’t care less about cruises and life insurance, High50 is edited by Tim Willis (52), who describes himself thus: ‘I hope I’ve grown up without growing old. I’ve been married and divorced. And essentially I’m still the person I was 20 years ago: style still matters to me as much as content; I haven’t given up on life or laughter. In fact, I’m as free as I was when I left university. Being fiftysomething is like being a teenager, with experience.’

     

    In her book ‘Amortality: the Pleasures and Perils of Living Agelessly’, Catherine Mayer cleverly analyses ‘the swelling ranks of people who live agelessly, doing and consuming many of the same things from teens to old age…Unwitting revolutionaries, we assume all options remain open, from youth into old age…(and) we never consider ourselves to young to pair up, break up, launch businesses, take on the world or too old for fresh commitments, old habits, the latest technologies or new diversions.’

     

    Alpha boomers would certainly recognise the pleasures of ‘amortality’ but there’s an important sense in which being over 50 offers new and different freedoms and opportunities.  Theorists of ageing have long posited the idea of the Third Age (the phrase was invented by University of the Third Age co-founder Peter Laslett), the idea being that modern medicine has opened up a window of opportunity between retirement and terminal infirmity hitherto unknown in human history. For writer and former clinical scientist Raymond Tallis, an extension of life beyond the basic narrative (mature, reproduce, perish) is also an opportunity to ‘redefine what it means to be human’. ‘One can look beyond economic survival and child-rearing to ask some fundamental questions about the meaning of life. And older people can speak freely, because they don’t have to answer to authority. In a sense, we have picked up the baton of rebellion from the young.’

     

    Deepak Chopra, blogging for the influential Huffington Post, touches on something similar when he describes our ‘second life’ post-50 as a time when we’ll want to focus on ‘quality of life and spiritual growth’. After all, he continues, ‘There’s only so much juice you can extract from getting and spending, working and consuming, entertaining yourself and socializing with others.’

     

    Of course, for many alpha boomers retirement is neither possible nor desirable. (That’s another cultural shift; remember back when the dream of every thrusting young banker was to make enough money to retire at 45? Now the question would be, retire to do what?) Continued, vigorous engagement with the world, albeit on one’s own terms, is an alpha boomer sine qua non. It’s hard to imagine George Clooney, Vivienne Westwood, Martin Amis, Lynne Franks, James Dyson, Kate Bush or Nick Cave taking a back seat to let the young people get on with it.

     

    Yet ‘vigorous engagement’ is easier said than done if you’ve been made redundant at 50 (both sexes) or you feel ‘invisible’ in the street or workplace (especially women). Our fifty-plus lives have the potential to be exciting and rewarding, yes, but they can also be financially and personally difficult. For all the excitement among marketing men who have finally noticed a vast untapped demographic of hip, monied consumers, boomers ‘have faced significant economic and lifestyle challenges, particularly in the aftermath of the 2007-2009 recession,’ points out a report prepared by marketing agency Ad Age. ‘Few likely looked forward to developing gray hair and wrinkles, but the financial and housing crises have made this life stage seem that much more unkind. As they’ve been edged out of the work force or seen retirement savings dwindle, some have found that they are unable to assume a brighter future, unlike younger generations who have time to make up for losses. For those born between 1955 and 1964, many of whom are taking care of children and older parents, the last few years have been particularly challenging.’

     

    Robert Campbell suggests that over-50s who have been treated as ‘expendable’ by their corporation should consider working for themselves – ‘statistically, businesses started by entrepreneurs in their 50s have a greater chance of success than those launched by people in their 30s.’ In 2004, around 17% of those claiming job seeker’s allowance were 50 and over, I WILL TRY TO UPDATE THIS STAT and Campbell is calling for mentoring, entrepreneur’s clubs and even work placements to address those needs. The Prince’s Initiative for Mature Enterprise, or PRIME, was set up by the PoW and is currently the only national UK charity that helps the over 50s get back into work through self-employment

     

    Iniatitives such as these won’t help those who feel cast on the scrapheap of life, however. In New York, Barbarba Grufferman’s book The Best of Everything After 50, published in 2010, tapped into a wellspring of misery among women who felt that, at 50, frumpy irrelevance beckoned. Grufferman wrote it after she turned 50, hit the menopause and ‘was confused and overwhelmed by the many media messages shouting at me from all sides that younger is better, sexier, more desirable, and that older is another word for invisible.’ While the book began as a guide to health, beauty and general well-being for the over-50s, Grufferman has become something of a spokeswoman for her generation, blogging about the jobs lost to women since the recession (300,000 since July 2009) and how women ‘derailed by the Mommy track’ could get back to work.

     

    In this context ‘invisibility’ is less about wolf whistle strike rate and more about ways to present oneself in the workplace and to potential employers. ‘If you’re feeling invisible, maybe it’s because you’re retreating,’ says Grufferman. ‘My message to women is, whatever your age, embrace it. Don’t try to look younger, just be the best you can be at your age.’

     

    In the UK, Ceri Wheeldon is doing something similar with her website and social network, Fabafterfifty.com. ‘As I approached 50 myself,’ says Wheeldon, ‘I was appalled at the ageism I could see around me, so I decided to try to change attitudes. Far from being ready to sit in a rocking chair and knit, today’s over-50s are reinventing themselves, setting up new businesses and having second careers. We are travelling, starting new relationships, writing books and even climbing mountains.’ PLEASE DON’T CUT SHE HELPED ME FIND CASE STUDY

     

    In yet another sign of the times, the brand new Mumsnet offshoot Gransnet, edited by Geraldine Bedell, name-checks Banksy, moon cups, digital photography and the Nintendo DSi XL on its homepage, while the tone of forums so far, according to Bedell, is ‘buoyant and upbeat, not grumpy old git’.

     

    According to Emma Soames, Saga’s former editor and now editor-at-large, women do now ‘go on feeling sexy for longer’. More to the point, however, ‘people who work in the arts and the creative industries actually get better with age.’ Soames directs me to the runaway French bestseller ‘The Warmth of the Heart Prevents Your Body from Rusting: ageing without growing old,’ by psychologist Marie de Hennezel, which urges us to embrace our ‘golden age’. ‘We have to kiss goodbye to our young skin and accept our wrinkles, but another kind of beauty is accessible to us – that of emotional youth,’ argues de Hennezel.

     

    Role models closer to home include Marianna Tregoning, who founded her internationally successful skincare line Beyond Organic at 57 and enjoyed a ten-year relationship with a partner 20 years her junior until his tragic death from a brain hemorrhage five years ago. Now 62, she tells me that it has simply never crossed her mind that ‘I couldn’t or shouldn’t do something because of my age. I’ve always grabbed life with both hands and shaken it to see what comes out. And I haven’t changed; I’m still shaking it and finding new and exciting things. It’s to do with attitude, and I think there are going to be a lot more people like me, still happily working and embracing life in all its forms.’

     

    With so many cool, desirable, interesting, engagé and powerful men and women over 50 out there, I’ve begun to wonder whether I should update the profile on my Facebook page. If I really believe ageism is shortly to go the way of sexism, racism, homophobia and other low-rent predjudices shunned by polite society, then surely I should include not just the day and month but also the year of my birth, which, like a number of other FB users d’une certaine age, I’d reasoned was for me to know and others to wonder about. Will I choose to be out and proud, or should I retain what’s left of my mystique? Oh, even better. I can choose a third, genius option, perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist: ‘Don’t show my birthday in my profile’. If age is just a number, the precise figure is surely entirely beside the point.

     

     

    CASE STUDIES

     

    Christyne Remant, 66, is married to a property developer and has three chidren, 42, 40 and 23, and two grandchildren. She started modelling in local fashion shows when she was 63; her most recent appearance was on the Oxford Fashion Week catwalk.

     

    ‘I got involved in the local “beauty circuit” when I saw an ad in the Southern Evening Echo inviting readers to submit photos to enter a competition for a catwalk show with Southampton FC. I sent in my daughter’s photo and then just for fun I added my own. I was amazed to get down to the final 12, even though the other entries were all girls in their teens and twenties. I’ve always looked younger than my age; when I had my youngest daughter, at 43, the other mothers all assumed I was the same age as them.

    I think it comes down to positive thinking and good genes. I like to laugh and have fun, but I don’t exercise at all; I’ve tried belly dancing and salsa dancing but I find it boring. I’m lucky in that I like the right foods, and my rather oily skin has stood me in good stead. But I’ve never gone in for facials or any of that pampering. The one thing I’m very conscious about is sun protection.

    I put my youthfulness down to personality; I think people find me quite entertaining. I would hate to be thought of as full of myself, but if something looks fun, I’ll always give it a go. It’s also a chance to meet new people.

    Last year my husband and I went on holiday and made friends with another couple. On the last night the chap took to me to one side and said, ‘You’re the woman I’ve been waiting for all my life’. When I told him how old I was, he shrugged and said, ‘Nobody’s perfect.’ So I suppose at the moment I’m still hanging on in there.’

     

    The Hon Valentine Guinness, 52, is a member of The New Forbidden, a band reformed from Lloyd Grossman’s original 70s line-up Jet Bronx and the Forbidden. The band are scheduled to play at Glastonbury, Vintage and Guilfest this summer. Valentine is divorced (?), with two teenage daughters.

     

    ‘I had already retired from the music business twice when Lloyd told me he’d been invited to make a cameo appearance at a punk festival in Blackpool called Rebellion. That was in 2007. I’d released some singles with two bands, Panic and later Darling, in the Eighties and Nineties but when I hit 40 I had to make a decision – did I still want to be doing the pub circuit at my age? It just seemed inappropriate. I dropped out of music and started writing theatre and drama – one of my plays, Helping Harry, got put on at the Jermyn Street Theatre. It was directed by Nicholas Grace and got pretty good reviews. When Lloyd told me about Rebellion, however, I suggested we play a proper set. That got us writing songs together, and I’ve been very pleased with the new material – I think the new songs are actually better than the ones I was writing in my twenties.

    Our major break was meeting record producer Geoff Haslam, who’s worked with Aretha Franklin and the Velvet Underground, among many others. He really liked our stuff, which you could describe as fast, catchy guitar rock, and we recorded our new album, Ain’t Doin’ Nothing, for his label Gas Records.

    It’s not really music for midde-aged people; in fact all my 19-year-old daughter’s friends are mad about the band. But there has definitely been a change in attitudes about age. Twenty years ago, on the unsigned circuit, you’d get funny looks if you went into a pub as a band of fiftysomethings. Now we play on the same bill as twentysomethings and there’s a mutual admiration. People don’t seem to differentiate on the basis of age. And my daughter and her friends listen to everything from Elvis to the Blackeyed Peas. They’re far less judgemental than we were about whether a band is ‘cool’ or not.’

    Buy Ain’t Doin’ Nothin’ and find full gig listings at www.thenewforbidden.com

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