Still 35 after all these years

13 Feb

BotoxA friend and I were discussing the other day the number of women we knew who’d started appearing with new faces. The same new face, in fact, involving a trout pout and weirdly waxen forehead.

‘I dunno,’ my friend said wistfully, after we’d agreed this was pointless and ugly, ‘I’d quite like to have this done,’ and she pulled her face upwards.

After the age of about 43, an increasing number of women are now pretending to be 35 for about 20 years. Successful middle age entails passing yourself off as something you’re not – because obviously, being over 50 is just too loathsome to cope with. There is a King Canute-like pathos about this – and it’s odd, because women over 50 also report in surveys that they’re  having a great time,  have never felt surer of themselves or more confident in their opinions.

Yet middle age is publicly understood as a time of loss. It’s not only all those birthday cards in which ageing is a punchline; it’s the newspaper and magazine articles about substandard bodies (where standard is youthful and thin); it’s the ads for face cream that characterise laughlines as symptoms of physical deterioration rather than signs of a life well lived.

In restless consumer societies, newness is an economic virtue and youthfuless becomes a moral one. So women buy the Botox to convince other people, and perhaps themselves, that they’re not past it, not unworthy of consideration, that they still matter. There is, of course, nothing wrong with looking after yourself, mentally and physically, with improving your health or trying to make the best of your appearance. But the challenge of middle age is to do all that with grace and humour, and without trying to pass as something you’re not  – because the trouble is, if you think it’s your own fault for being ignored because you haven’t used Botox, you turn all the anger in on yourself and forget to be angry with the world for doing the ignoring.


Care, bonuses and an economy stuck in crisis

30 Jan

My 82 year-old mother spent the weekend setting up a twitter account. She gardens and learns French and, like most of her generation, is a long way from the vulnerable, querulous stereotype of an old person. It is possible, though, that she may come to need care at some point – and then not only she, but all our family will feel vulnerable. As Age UK points out today, a £500 million funding gap has opened up in social care, with the Coalition spending half a billion less than necessary just to keep services at the level they were at when they came to power.

If my mum needs care, she will probably have to sell her house (which she, born in the East End and brought up in a slum, considers she is holding in trust for her children and grandchildren). Like millions of others, she still runs the risk of receiving half-hearted, underpaid social care that fails to grant her dignity, respect and quality of life. She is resourceful and self-reliant, but it is impossible to plan ahead for any of this, to insure against the possibility you might need care. She may not meet eligibility criteria. She may come up against funding shortfalls. The whole thing is an unknown – and, increasingly, what safety net there is has huge holes in it.

There are millions of us facing this uncertain future, and we need to do something about it. In pre-industrial economies, when work and family were closely integrated, care of the elderly was part of household work and brought its own rewards. It was only when industrial economies started to measure people by how much output they could generate in factories that old people became a drain on the system, surplus to requirements. We still live with the mental hangover from that: all that matters to dignity and status is whether you can work – with that work defined in narrow terms.

Increasingly, though, post-industrial economies are directed towards improving quality of life and relationships rather than simply allowing us to have more stuff. In this context, care of the elderly makes economic as well as moral sense, generating wellbeing, reinforcing communities, creating social capital. Helping older people with things they find difficult can integrate them into society and allow them to make contributions, to be seen not as discarded but as valuable.

Care may not seem at first sight to have much to do with bankers’ bonuses, but they are both evidence of an economy stuck in stupidity. A growing body of research shows that economies thrive best when they are driven by cooperation and collaboration. The junking of old people, like preposterous bankers’ bonuses, sends the message that we’d all better look out for ourselves. Do we really want to live in a society in which getting on involves trampling on other people?

So there are practical reasons for looking at care differently, quite apart from the (overwhelming) moral ones. Without cooperation, we will see less innovation, less economic sophistication, a diminished quality of life. We should stop thinking about care as a service bestowed by the competent on the incompetent and see it as an investment in cooperation and fairness that will have a beneficial impact on all of us.

Winter Fuel Payments and bullying

15 Nov

fireplacePensioners are being told to give up their Winter Fuel Payments, the implication being that they’re selfish to hang onto them. Two different organisations have come forward in the last week – one to suggest that Winter Fuel Payments should be donated to young people, the other bossily telling older people to give them to the more deserving elderly.

It’s hard to see why all the moral pressure, unless it’s another excuse for oldie-bashing. It seems we dislike people getting old so much that we want to punish them. Why aren’t these charities (Fuel Our Youth is the name of one, Surviving Winter the other) telling the bankers to give up some of their bonuses? Or the CEOs who are earning 250 times as much as their workers?

The underlying assumption is that older people are a drain on society. Yet the over-60s volunteer in larger numbers than any other group and one in three working mothers relies on grandchildren for childcare. Old people haven’t sprung from nowhere. They’ve been working all their lives, paying taxes; on Gransnet, people have been recalling struggling to afford coal, in the days when it was unheard of  to ask your parents for help.

The Winter Fuel Payment was introduced because large numbers of old people were dying of hypothermia, and, earlier this year, the Institute of Fiscal Studies released a report finding that, to their surprise, people do actually spend their Winter Fuel allowance on heating. The psychological impact of the payment is significant.

Older people sometimes need permission to switch on their heating – especially at a time of rapidly escalating fuel bills. And that’s a clue to why means-testing, another idea that’s had an airing lately, would be a bad move. Older people notoriously underclaim benefits, for a variety of reasons, including that they don’t feel entitled. They struggle instead to make do, not wanting to grapple with the bureaucracy.

But all that is, in a sense, beside the point. Why pick on this in the first place? You can’t imagine this much fuss being made about any other benefit. The truth is that we live in a society which is increasingly one of haves and have-nots. Some commentators, for murky reasons of their own, want to convince us that it’s older people who are the haves. Some pensioners are comfortably off, some aren’t. But almost none of them is well off in the City sense. The haves are actually in a different stratosphere. So, how’s this – pensioners will give up their Winter Fuel allowance when the bankers donate their bonuses?

Poppies and boys with too many brains

9 Nov

poppyWould we like to ask grandparents to post photographs of themselves and their grandchildren wearing virtual poppies in a show of support for Remembrance Sunday, we were asked at Gransnet today? We would; one of the gransnetters lost a son-in-law in Afghanistan, and her stoicism, dignity and heartbreak have affected us all.

It was nice, for once, to be asked to do something intergenerational that didn’t involve squabbling. Recently I had to go on BBC Breakfast to argue against a report from an organisation calling itself the Intergenerational Foundation suggesting that older people should move out of their houses to make way for the young. This wheeze was dreamt up by nerdy chaps who were presumably so excited by graphs showing that there are imbalances in the housing market that they forgot that people have emotional relationships with their homes. Even when children have moved out, the family home matters at Christmas and for celebrations, often enables grandparents to look after their grandchildren and remains a place of memories and meaning.

There appears to be a concerted attempt on the part of some men to set generations at odds with each other. David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, kicked off this rather unhelpful craze with his book, The Pinch, which argues that the boomer generation, his and mine, have been mean (I paraphrase) to the young. This was followed by another polemic, Jilted Generation, by Ed Howker and Shiv Malik, which complains that their generation, twentysomethings, can’t get jobs or houses because they’ve been gerrymandered by us.

They’re very clever, all these men – David Willetts is affectionately known as ‘two brains’ and Ed and Shiv actually do have two brains – but it ignores how vulnerable, insecure and cut off a lot of older people are; that pensions are everywhere under threat and healthcare costs are rising. That there appears to be no political will to pay for social care. That it is globalisation and free market economics that have done this to us, just as much as they have spoilt the young chaps’ own dream of steady jobs and nice houses in a decent part of town.

Every day on Gransnet we read stories of grandparents helping out their children in crises, looking after their grandchildren, saving to pay for children’s deposits on flats and their university fees; preoccupied with their families, worrying about the future of younger generations, volunteering, voting, caring. Grandparents take the long view. It is bankers, politicians and many of our public institutions that have lost it. The Royal British Legion can see that; it’s a mystery why it’s beyond those men with their many brains.

Grandparents, the new shock troops

17 Oct

stretch limoWhatever happened to the Big Society? It hardly got a mention at the Conservative Party conference a couple of weeks ago, perhaps because a parliamentary select committee had recently issued a warning that it was going to fail. And Lord Wei, the Big Society Tsar, has disappeared without trace since cutting back his work on the grounds that he was too busy and hard up to volunteer. The Big Society now appears to have more to do with us all being obese.

Something’s been lost here. On Gransnet, when we canvassed members on what they thought of the Big Society, there was a fair amount of scepticism – ‘getting people to do jobs for free once you’ve sacked them,’ was a pretty common response – but there was also a lot of volunteering. One gransnetter described her various roles: ‘school governor, school club organiser, language tutor, community activist, counsellor, advice worker, nursing home visitor, childminder’. Oh, and she and her husband had recently taken in a homeless alcoholic for three months and raised the money from the local community to get him into rehab and he’s now back with his wife.

Peter Laslett, the founder of the University of the Third Age, characterised this part of life as ‘a time of responsibility. We owe less to our own futures, and more to the futures of others.’ By the time you get to your 50s, people have usually died. Your parents may be ailing, you may have had the odd health scare; you’re aware that life doesn’t go on for ever. But there’s still time to do something more, or different. There’s also a sense that you are what survives of you. Many people talk about wanting to leave not just a financial legacy, but a social one; middle age is often a time, as the Harvard professor Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot has said, of ‘looking back and giving forward.’

The members who have posted on Gransnet’s Big Society threads feel that they’re already doing their bit. ‘Thousands of us already do all sorts of volunteer jobs and have done for years. The Big Society has been under attack since the 1980s,’ said one – and she has a point: over several decades, society has been structured to celebrate and reward competition. Get to the top and be paid 100 times as much as people in the middle….the winner takes all….the public sector is a necessary evil…ruthless markets rule. We’ve even sought justification for it in science, with the notion of the selfish gene (not, you note, the successful gene). Even helping others is supposed to have some hidden ulterior motive; we’ve managed to take all the altruism out of altruism. We all now seem to be more or less believers in the survival of the fittest, where fittest means greediest and most selfish.

Cameron’s Big Society, clearly, wasn’t well thought-out – but it’s sad that no one even seems to have any aspiration for it any more. What would it be like if we tried to do things differently? What if we celebrated cooperative elites rather than competitive ones? There’s plenty of research to show that people cooperate more if they see others cooperating and they know that free-riders will be punished. What if we looked instead for ways to celebrate and reward altruistic elites, with a view to creating a more cooperative society? One thing is clear: grandparents would be its shock troops.

How to write a novel

4 Oct

pencilI spent quite a bit of the summer trying to finish the novel I’m writing. It oughtn’t to have been too difficult: it already has a beginning, middle and an end. It’s just the other stuff that’s not quite right.

On holiday, you can get up before anyone else and sit with a cup of tea and your words which are all in the wrong order and try to put them in the right order. This is because on holiday other people go to foam discos and bars and play cards until late even though they’re yawning and at home they’d have been in bed hours ago.

Last weekend I chaired an event at the Marlborough Literary festival with two young novelists, Edward Hogan and Evie Wyld. They’re both highly talented and extremely engaging and I highly recommend their books – but they are also very annoying. As invariably happens at this sort of event, they were asked how they go about writing. This is a good question because these days almost no one can afford to write full-time. Publishers are making less money and are resistant to investing in career development, so writers, even manifestly talented ones, have to fund themselves. Ed works as a student counsellor and Evie in a bookshop. They both said they like to get up really early: there’s something special about the slightly scrambled yet focused state of the early morning brain, untroubled by the white noise of work and commuting and other people’s demands.

Great. I already get up at 6.45. I’m not sure there is an earlier time than that. I make breakfast, argue about whether there’s time for a boy to have a shower (no), retrieve homework, Oyster card, find uniform, get the boy out of the house, get him to school and myself to work – well, you get the picture. And so it goes on, until I finish loading the dishwasher at about 9.45pm, when I’m ready to fall into bed.

How to write a novel. Be young, don’t eat breakfast, don’t have children who argue or lose things…oh, I don’t know. If I knew I’d have finished it.

I was going to write something interesting, but I’ve forgotten what

26 Sep

Canada: a lot to answer for

On Thursday, I was at the supermarket checkout with the groceries packed into bags, scrabbling in my handbag for my purse, only to realise it was on the kitchen work surface at home.

The following morning, I had a meeting at which I needed to make four points, which I had carefully thought about beforehand and written down, in case of forgetting them in the excitement of sitting round a table with some other people. I left the notebook at home too.

That lunchtime, my google alert pinged to tell me I was having a hair cut in ten minutes’ time. Which was very good of it, but the hairdresser is a 40-minute drive away.

It was not a good week, in other words – though the worst day was Wednesday, when my 11 year-old had a test, for which he needed to take only a pencil case and a photograph he could discuss. We decided the most suitable photo was on my husband’s phone. Unfortunately, he and his phone were in Canada, but he sent it and I printed it off and put it in the school bag with the pencil case. It was only when we got to school that I realised the bag was still (no prizes here) on the kitchen floor.

The trouble with thinking about ageing the whole time is that when a lot of things like this happen to you, you become convinced you have incipient Alzheimer’s. I am always insisting that the middle-aged brain is an impressive thing, but in my case that’s clearly nonsense.

It is of course, perfectly possible that I do have incipient Alzheimer’s – though I prefer to blame my husband for being in Canada, which means I have to remember absolutely everything myself. (Plus he’s not here so he can’t answer back). If I start doubting that Canada’s a good enough explanation, I like to recall the time, at least 20 years ago, when I went to the cash machine, withdrew the entire weekly budget, took my card and left the money there.

It’s not that much of a consolation.