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New Thinking.

  1. Long reads
28 June 1999

Why I hate dinner parties now

You're middle-aged and out of a job. So you're a nobody, finds Tony Rennell

By Tony Rennell

I was at a really classy do the other week, one of those swish SW1 affairs in an elegant apartment with a couple of ancestral paintings on the wall and a coffee table groaning with books on Italian opera, African design and English country houses. A dozen or so movers and shakers had gathered to bond.

There was a professor who knew more about the intimate habits of leaves and plants than is decent. There was a government minister, two captains of industry, one of our leading fashion designers and a best-selling author.

And me.

Now if we had been into CVs, most of theirs would have been on two sides of A4, and even then they would have had to leave out their most recent article in the Times and where they lived. Mine would have been a mere Post-it note: “Out of work. Wrong side of 50. Can discourse freely on Neighbours and Home and Away. Publications: a fan letter to Richard Whiteley at Countdown (returned marked ‘Gone away’).”

Any fellow dinner guest reading that could have been forgiven for sneaking up to the table for a quick squint during the pre-prandial stage and doing a quick shuffle of the placement cards. Being next to the minister would be bad enough, having to listen to all that “Isn’t Tony terrific?” stuff, but even that would be better than being next to Someone Who Doesn’t Have A Job. What will we have to talk about?

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Well, modesty aside, the cardsharp would have missed out on some decent chat. I may be putting a dash and an “N/A” at the moment on forms I fill in that have a box for “Occupation”, but my brain has not seized up. I’ve got enough marbles left to work out that the West Lothian question really does need an answer, I sat through Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen without dozing off and I’ve read Longitude.

There is a serious point to all this. We live in a world where people define themselves solely by the job they do. Who am I? I am an editor, a banker, a doctor, a lawyer, the Prime Minister. If I don’t have a job, it follows that I’m a nothing.

For nearly 30 years I had been clawing my way up that ladder, bidding for the next title. Now when I get asked, “So, what do you do?” I smile and my voice drops as I use some euphemism before quickly adding: “Until very recently I was on the . . . but then there were some changes . . . it was all very amicable and they were very generous. And now? Well, not a lot actually, but it’s great fun and I don’t miss blah blah blah . . . “

But I’m learning to tell the truth. “I don’t have a job but I’m very busy learning to live without one. I’ve got a bit of freelance work, and there’s a book project. I’ve got this piece to do for the Statesman. I’m spending time in the British Library . . . ”

I am far from alone in this state of being. There are hundreds of thousands of Obots like me. Obots? It’s the stage before OAP and obit, and it stands for Out Before Our Time.

Every demographic projection tells us that we are heading for a preponderance of the old in our society. The long-term issues raised by that are largely ignored by politicians with short-term agendas. But one way or another the dilemmas of health-care rationing, state-funded pensions and euthanasia will catch up with us and will have to be addressed.

For the moment the matter is at the debate stage. There is a growing library of books on the subject, mainly American in origin and with catchy titles such as Grey Future. The macro-economists, too, are getting in on the act. What they all have in common is the assumption that how we cope with an ageing population comes down to money. Which it does – but only up to a point. It also comes down to how people live their lives.

In my childhood it was assumed that a man (yes, man) got a job, stuck to it and retired when he was 65 to dig his allotment and play with his grandchildren.

Life has changed. Now the workforce consists of both men and women, a job for life is a dead concept and most allotments seem to have been bricked over with smart exec housing estates. But officialdom still schedules 65 as our sell-by date. That’s when the endowment policy matures, the mortgage is paid off and the pensions cut in. Go before your time on any of these and you will almost certainly pay a penalty.

If that is the future, then we have to plan for it. Financial institutions must address the question of how an individual’s 25-year working life can support a pension period lasting just as long and possibly more. Is it economically feasible? The pensions system, both private and national, is creaking perilously as it is. How will it cope when the trickle of 50 year olds turns into a flood?

Financial implications apart, we must take a fresh look at what work means to us. Because if it is our only identity, the only indicator of worth and status, we will be left with a dad’s army of dissatisfied over-50s, their existence stripped of purpose.

The real answer is for us to learn that we are what we are and we do what we do and we are not a job description or a title on an office door. The late Robert Maxwell used to delight in telling people as he fired them: “Look on this as an opportunity.” It pains me to admit it, but the old brute may have been right.

So ask me what I do and I can now answer openly and truthfully: “I’m exploring opportunities.” Sounds good. I’ll be happy to put that on my resume when I come round for dinner.

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