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February 24, 2005

Why oldies should be amused and amusing

Posted by Digby Anderson

What virtues - or lack of them - manifest themselves with age? What does one learn by leaving full-time work? What should be expected of people as they grow older? Digby Anderson, who stepped down last year as Director of the Social Affairs Unit, kicks off a new series of articles giving different perspectives on growing older and/or retirement: In Retreat - Thoughts on Growing Older. He suggests that growing old offers the opportunity to see the humour of many situations which would otherwise be all too serious. Oldies should be amused and amusing.

I am looking at two empty glasses and an empty bottle of champagne. The champagne was part of a case known as Cuvee BBB, The Blair Bubbly Benefit. Every year, usually just before Christmas, Britain's government hands out to its retired citizens - those over sixty - 200 per household to be spent on fuel. Not all spend it on champagne. One elderly lady I know who, at eighty five receives a whole 200 for herself uses it to keep up her formidable consumption of cigarettes. 200 might also cover a day at the horses and a fiver bet each per race. As for the genuinely poor oldies, given their disproportionate expenditure on smoking, I'd guess that the allowance is spent on cigarettes, scratch cards, tattoos and, of course, chips.

As Mrs A and I stare at the empty bottle, gently burping the while, we get to thinking - in a similarly gentle way. It's sad when the last bottle of Triple B is gone. It's not that there are not lots more bottles of champagne on our racks. And they are rather better: 200 does not buy very good champagnes even at Tesco's generous discount. Perhaps the Government might think of that for the General Election:

Make it Lanson with Labour.
But it's nice to drink in solidarity with thousands of other oldies, corks popping together in harmony from Kettering to Kent. Yet what exactly is it that we retirees - or as the translated French more appropriately calls us, those in retreat - have in common?

Nothing objectively. Some are affluent, a few poor, some healthy, some ill, some active, some comatose, some happy, some sad. Yet the Government stupidly and in defiance of the facts classes those in retreat together. More, its fuel allowance paints a picture of them all as being "in need". A variation on the picture is common in society and trumpeted by the oldie-pressure groups; the retired if not actually in need are vulnerable. Except as part of the truism that all mankind is vulnerable, this is manifest nonsense. Most people between 60 and 70 are no more vulnerable than any other age group.

Then, suddenly, Mrs A and I see it. Like most Government nonsense, the neediness of oldies, or their vulnerability is not only a lie. It is the opposite of the truth. What we have in common is not need, not lack of anything, not that we must have something given to us, but that we don't have anything required of us. The most immediate aspect of this is that oldies are not expected to do anything - except claim benefits and open pension cheques. We may get up early or we may stay in bed. We may stay in bed all day or all week and attract no social censure at all. Most ages have roles assigned to them. Children learn. Adolescents learn, experiment, grow up, court. Young marrieds make a home and have children. Older marrieds work and make provision for retirement. Those from fifty to early sixties have another very minimal role as grandparents. Thereafter no role is demanded at all for the next 20 or 30 years.

In the United States there is a phenomenon of "geriatric hippies", oldies who take off in luxury camping cars, wandering about aimlessly all over America. The point being there is no reason why they should not. Their being "on the road" does not mean they fail to meet expectations or leave tasks undone for none are had or required of them. Here, in England, the cheap airlines are increasingly filled with oldies hurtling round world, ricocheting from beach chairs in Barcelona to Karaoke bars in Bangkok. There is nothing, in terms of expectations, to keep them at home, once they have arranged for the cat to be fed.

With the roles go virtues. Learning children should be applied and obedient. Young marrieds give up pleasures to look after their children. Working age people are expected to spend very large amounts of their lives working. And what are the virtues expected of the elderly? Well, there used to be several. They were expected to be wise. That is, not only to keep alive traditional wisdoms but pass them on in advice to the young. Not today. Younger people seek technical fixes for their problems not wisdom. Oldies are not thought of as wise but as being out of date. Indeed most do not think of themselves as wise but try to affect the ignorance of the young. They spend like the young too. It is easy to see why there is a housing shortage and a tendency for bigger houses though families are smaller. It is that the new consumers need ever larger houses to accommodate the plunder acquired when shopping. Acquisition has always been part of life for those between 20 and 40. The best of it was involved in building a new home. But when the occupants get to 60 and the home is full, they now keep on shopping and acquiring. There are few more disgusting sights in the shopping mall than oldies buying yet more new versions of things they already had enough of in the first place.

Once upon a time, the opposite was expected of the elderly. They would start reducing their possessions. Some were given away because younger members of the family needed them. Others were discarded as they were perceived to be vain or frivolous, not things that an old and wise person would want. Those books on the shelves to impress, those bought in the self-deception they would one day be read, those kept for mere sentimentality's sake: they can all go when the old person stops trying to impress people, to fool himself or to indulge in sentimentality. The same goes for the kitchen equipment, the fishing equipment, even the clothes. By the time you are sixty you know which pans you actually use, which clothes you need, and which rod is least unsuccessful.

Of course, the culmination of this process of getting rid of the unnecessary, the frivolous, the vain and the proud, is getting ready for death itself, gradually separating oneself from the vanities of this world, coming to terms with who you are and where you are going. That is what should be expected of the old.

There's no reason why it should be a miserable process. For what wisdom teaches is that once you untie yourself from the frenetic obsessions of this world, even by a little, there opens the immense possibility for humour. Young very serious minded economists shake their heads at the economic illogicality of the fuel allowance. Hard-working fathers are furious with the way the Government wastes their taxes. The retired could and should be above the serious analysis and the fury. They are the people who should be able to laugh at it all. The rest of the country should require more of those who are retired. Not least it should expect them to be amused and amusing.

Digby Anderson retired as Director of the Social Affairs Unit in 2004.


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A case of any champagne for 200 is good news, surely? No hints as to label, I don't suppose?

Posted by: James Hamilton at February 25, 2005 12:59 PM
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The problem is that the world thinks that poor people in it need money!! When all they needs is skills that the old have ,and I am sure a lot of them would be only to happy to share them with the poor of the world .I meen also poor as in 3th world . The old are looking for a purpose and this would fill it. Maybe some one will set it up for them?and I can join along with them when my time comes

Posted by: Ian Breward at October 30, 2005 10:59 PM
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