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March 17, 2005

Working Life after 60

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North - the author of the Social Affairs Unit's forthcoming Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence - considers what it is like to be fast approaching 60 - and needing to continue to work.

What does a superannuated near-hippy do next, at sixty? It's a problem and an opportunity I am a short totter from having to address in earnest. But the fact is, one looks at these things with increasing intensity any time after 50 or so. I'm afraid I need to get personal, I hope not obsessively so, for a moment or two. My own position would be recognisable to many a more or less bohemian person in the last couple of hundred years. I arrive at late middle age having spent a more or less creative life and with a lively, complicated family, but rather small - well, tiny - assets.

Like many a commercially-unsuccessful middle (or upper) class person before me, my prospects in late middle and old age depend quite a lot on how my parent's generation "cut up" (as the 18th Century described the problem of family inheritance). A small handful of old people may leave me no capital, or a pittance. They may leave me a home-owner, or not. It may be that none of this is revealed to me for several years: mine is the first generation with so many of its members both facing old age and looking after the aged. With so much up in the air, I can add one small certainty. The state will more or less ensure that I do not actually starve, but its tender mercies do not much appeal.

Is this condition of mine at all generalisable?

In two ways, yes. In the first place, my generation of post-War babies were perhaps the first to grow to adulthood with a faith that the state looked after everyone and that one did not need to worry about getting a living, if being interesting or anything else appealed more. This was wrong-headed of us, and led some of us to make mistakes which no subsequent generation is likely to make. Compound this with our taste for divorce, and one sees financial gravity defied on all sides. Secondly, I am a born "free-lancer", and the world is moving our way.

Several tendencies make it likely that many old people will be able to get quite good livings quite late in life. More and more of us have been schooled in "portfolio" lives: we are used to having many bosses and none. We are used to finding decent livings doing interesting work at the periphery of firms and institutions: we are born consultants. (And consultants may often be more useful if they can field experience.) We are also prized as shift workers in jobs involving contact with the public: we can speak intelligible English and know the value of a smile. We are patient and diligent and don't whinge and get stressed. Technology is going in our favour: we were the early-adopters of mobile phones, computers, and the like. We know about working in a way which is loose in space and time: we know how to work at home, at any hour.

What's more, many of us are a curious blend of the social and the curmudgeonly: we know how to deal with people but the loneliness of home-working doesn't faze us. It may even be that our hippydom helps us endure poverty. University educated people of my generation may prove good at teaming up to buy their lentils bulk. We may also be imaginative in encouraging third world micro-capitalists to invest in geriatric farms in their warm, orderly countries.

We are of course also in quite good shape. Few of us have ruined our joints with a lifetime of jogging, but most of us stopped smoking a decade or so ago. The pharmaceutical and medical industries are addressing our ailments pretty well: for many of us, the flesh may prove quite a good home to pretty decent spirits and minds for a while yet.

There is something else working in our favour. We old hippies and near-hippies are case-hardened bohemians. We may have invented the infantilist culture of the 1960s, but we are now very nearly mature. A generation of late-developers is in rather good shape to work with the stressed, jumpy young who are the product of dreadful education, entertainment and politics produced by - yes - us. Oddly, there is a chance that those of us who most need to work because of our former fecklessness will be able to put our former fecklessness at the service of the young, to whom we have so far done - I am afraid - rather few favours.

And in our leisure? If the present elderly are anything to go by, the Baby Boomers will grow into people who are interesting and interested. We are travelled, and may travel more. We are interested in cultural matters, and may devote more time (and heart and spirit) to them. We are, many of us, discovering rather late the joys of a settled love life. We are interested in our children, and seem mostly to be rather liked by them. We are likely to make busy volunteers. As we become elderly, I live in high hopes that sensible (manageable, predictable) doses of cannabis will be readily available to ease our aches and pains, and enhance our mood and sex lives. I imagine we will evolve decent policies on voluntary euthanasia, and the technologies to make death agreeable.

This is all to say that those of us who can't or won't retire may well enjoy our last years of work, and those of us who choose to retire will live rather rich lives. My self-indulgent generation looks set to be valuable at last.

Richard D. North's Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence will be published this year by the Social Affairs Unit.

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Let me get this right - Richard D. North cannot retire because he is insufficiently affluent - and instead makes a living writing books called "Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence" - what a delicious irony.

Posted by: Jane at March 17, 2005 11:55 AM

I always thought the Social Affairs Unit mantra was -"it's going to the dogs", "it's going to hell in a handbasket" - the intellectual version of Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.

Now here we have Richard D. North, extolling cannabis for the over 60s - and, what is more cannabis to boost the sex lives of the over 60s. What a refreshing change. Party on Richard.

More importantly Richard D. North shows that you can stick up for all the good things - the free market, capitalism, globalisation - without being a stuffy old fart. The Social Affairs Unit should find more like him.

Posted by: Anne Jacobs at March 17, 2005 12:16 PM

Richard, you are one of the few who appear optimistic about life after 60. My own father (54) appears to have given up - especially after being reminded by his employer that he is only left with 2 years of employment. The 'old man' already feels dumped. I'll make sure he reads this, maybe he'll be motivated to do something positive.

Posted by: Andrew at November 2, 2005 10:53 PM
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