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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2001, MCB UP Limited
When your managing editor asked me if I would contribute a Viewpoint my reaction was that there is nothing that I could say that could be of any interest to readers. It is now a quarter of a century since I retired from the Civil Service and 18 years since I left my post-retirement job in the European Union. In the meantime, the world has "turned turtle" and I am left now far, far behind. It then occurred to me that there is one sphere which I have experienced and the majority of readers of this journal have not – that of being old. That is the theme of this Viewpoint.
Those of us who have passed the Biblical watershed of three score and ten years pose a great problem. We are the source of material for demographers, a concern for actuaries and a nightmare for providers of pensions. We make enormous demands on the health services, both public and private. We are a drain on the social services budget. The cost of the greater part of this is carried by the working population, who are remarkably tolerant about it. The situation will worsen and cries out for a remedy. Somehow the cost of provision for future needs must be transferred to beneficiaries while they themselves are working and there is evidence that many minds are occupied with plans for such a transfer. One imagines that a major problem is the transitional period, which clearly will be long and during which the working population will be faced with providing not only for their own future but also, through taxation, for that of those who have then retired.
It is to be hoped that in any such study, some realism will be allowed to enter. There is a tendency for popularists to equate pensioners with poverty and to go for universality. But is it really sensible, for example, to give everyone over 75 a free television licence? There are, of course, very many pensioners who are badly off but there are also many that are not. Researchers tell us how much capital there is in the hands of the elderly. If incomes appear smaller than those of people at work, so also is the expenditure to be met out of them. Most pensioners no longer have to service mortgages; indeed the houses acquired with them may now be used in the many schemes available to increase income. If one no longer has to travel to work, the large cost of doing so no longer has to be found. Meals out do not have to be bought so often. There are many such ways in which at-work and not-at-work incomes are not comparable.
Away from finance, there is an increasing sense of alienation of the old from the next and next-but-one generations. It is as if the worlds which they occupy are quite different. Change, of course, there always is but has technology ever brought it about with the rapidity which has, in the past 20 years, jolted us from one type of existence into another? Our grandchildren talk in a jargon we do not recognise, although plainly what they say is perfectly comprehensible to their fellows. But the thing operates the other way round too. Tales we tell of when we too were young are received with deep suspicion – clearly grandad is beginning to hallucinate, and these are just fairy stories. The 1930s, for example, which they learn began with economic catastrophe, were passed under the shadow of the dictators and ended in war. For many, undoubtedly, a wretched and miserable time. But for a young man in London with a first job at £150 a year, it was an exciting and enjoyable time. It was the era of the sixpence, when that sum could buy a Penguin book which had just appeared in the bookshops, and gain entrance to a piano recital by Myra Hess or Schnabel; when for only a little more one could see the young John Gielgud in Richard of Bordeaux or Gertrude Lawrence in Nymph Errant; when for three of them one could get an excellent three-course meal at a Corner House with a live orchestra playing while one ate (it was Falkman and his Apache Band at the Tottenham Court Road establishment). All simple pleasures compared with the worldwide opportunities now available to divert our descendants.
How, they and their contemporaries must wonder, could such pursuits be regarded as fulfilling? Yet they were and the fact that they were illustrates the enormous change in climate that has occurred. However much we want to find common ground it is difficult to do so. Of course, changes in the workplace have been even greater than in leisure activities. It all makes the old feel as if they have been left stranded on the shores of a newly discovered land, where they have no hope of reaching the interior.
There! I knew when I began this Viewpoint that I would fall into that bane of the old – reminiscence. Perhaps that says more about ageing than anything else in these comments.
Norman PriceEditorial Advisory Board member