Along with a growing band of fortysomething mothers, Cherie Blair has shattered a stereotype about the age when you have a baby. But our image of what society will be like as it gets older remains anchored in a set of largely unflattering stereotypes about middle and old age.
A common conception of an ageing population takes its cue from Shakespeare’s unforgiving caricatures of middle and old age in the “seven ages” speech of As You Like It (written in his thirties). Instead of a society full of ardent lovers “sighing like a furnace” and young soldiers “sudden and quick in quarrel”, we will become one packed with overweight middle-aged judges “full of wise saws and modern instances” and doddery old fools reliving a second childhood.
Rather than this conventional “seven ages” approach – which is in any case outdated now that Barbie dolls are discarded at five and Americans reject the label of teenager as soon as they’re 16, all to the great alarm of Disney and toy company executives – we should consider more promising, life-affirming alternatives. It is familiar ground that we have formed our basic outlook on life by our early thirties, and that, thereafter, we change relatively little. The eagerness with which advertisers still target the declining number of 18-34 year olds suggests there’s something in the theory: they know that this is when brand loyalties are forged. As John Vincent, a sociologist at Exeter University and author of Politics, Power and Old Age, says, “opinions you form in youth are very powerful, they stay with you for the rest of your life”. This applies to political opinions as much as to anything else. It is commonly assumed that, as people get older, they become more conservative (small c and large C). And it has been true hitherto that older citizens are more likely to vote Tory.
But that may be a reflection of their membership of a particular generation, rather than a sign of their age. The burgeoning number of pensioners after 2010 – whose potential demands for pensions and healthcare so alarm finance ministers – will be members of the big baby-boom generation, born between 1946 and the mid-1960s. They may well turn out not to be fogeyish traditionalists but, albeit in more muted form, supporters of the values they acquired in their youth, clinging to permissive beliefs and secular attitudes.
If subsequent generations – such as Generation X born in the late 1960s and 1970s, after the baby boomers – swing to the right, we could end up with permissive grannies being challenged by more sober-minded youth. Edina and Patsy of Ab Fab will be grey-haired, but they will remain as incorrigibly irresponsible as they were in middle age. Meanwhile, Saffy will be drumming Victorian values into her own children.
There is already some evidence that supports the Ab Fab conceit of a generation gap turned on its head. A recent comparison of people born in 1970 with those born in 1958 showed that three-quarters of the GenXers, born in 1970, agreed that marriage is for life, against only three-fifths of the baby boomers, born in 1958. In the US, a similar move towards more restrictive sexual attitudes by GenXers has been noted by Norval Glenn at the University of Texas. The British comparison also shows that GenXers hold less generous views about redistribution and take a tougher stance on law and order than the baby boomers.
That’s how one theory stacks up. But there’s another one that says older age groups are actually much less rigid in their attitudes than we sometimes think. Stephen Cutler, an American authority on ageing at Vermont University, thinks that older people in the US are quite malleable in their identities and their social and political beliefs. “As society at large goes, so go older persons,” he finds.
A particularly revealing finding is that older Americans have not led the way when public opinion has been moving in a conservative direction. According to Cutler’s research, older age groups adopted a harder stance on law and order over a long period from 1959 to 1985. However, the shifts in their position were no greater than those among younger Americans.
Looking ahead, it seems unlikely there’ll be any let-up in the breakneck pace of technological, economic and social change. In these circumstances, it is hard to envisage older people remaining hidebound in their ways, particularly since they will be better educated than earlier generations. The big expansion in higher education that got under way in the 1980s will start to work its way through to older age groups from the 2020s onwards.
One major change to which all age groups will be responding is the social redefinition of age itself – of which Cherie Blair’s pregnancy is only one instance. “Age is no longer a predictor of lifestyle in the same way as it was ten or 15 years ago,” says Richard Scase, author of a recent report, Britain Towards 2010, for the Department of Trade and Industry.
Earlier and earlier retirement, for example, is reshaping the meaning of middle age. We are working fewer years even though we are living longer. Men are now starting to leave the labour force as early as 50. Not everyone retires willingly; many are evicted from their jobs. Whatever the causes and the economic consequences, however, early retirement blurs the boundaries between middle age, when you worked, and old age, when you retired. We talk about a greying society, but the reality is that the black and white states of old and middle age are themselves turning grey.
So, whichever of the above theories is right, we should shake off the assumption that an ageing future is bound to be a more conservative one. Life expectancy in the UK has been increasing by around two years each decade. As we live longer and healthier lives, this is bound eventually to change what it means to be middle aged or to be old. Marketing people in the US have already cottoned on to this and talk about “mid-youth” rather than middle age. The fifty- and sixty-somethings of the 21st century will not go gently into that good night, as the present activities of ageing rock stars suggest.
Perhaps that was what Bill Haley meant by “rock around the clock”.
BBC Radio 4’s “Analysis: going grey”, presented by Paul Wallace, is broadcast on 28 November