Life used to begin at 40. Over the years, this changed to 50, then 60 and now whatever age you want it to be. You’re only as old as you feel but, with extra pressures put on our aging population to work longer, the over 60s have been hit hard by austerity cuts. At the same time school leavers face the largest unemployment figures for their demographic in years and have seen the cost of a university education rise. The preconceptions about how both young and old should behave come from a variety of sources and the way different age groups are presented influences our opinions but how has this changed over the years?
MPs have replaced policemen as the yardstick to judge when we are growing old. Politics, once the preserve of grey haired men in dark suits, has seen a huge turnaround in perceptions and though the average age of an MP has remained constant around the 50 mark, party leaders are increasingly younger. After the war, Atlee, Churchill and Macmillan all served as Prime Minister following long apprenticeships on the back benches and well into pensionable age (Churchill hit 80 in office). In the 21st Century though, David Cameron was elected Conservative leader before he was 40 with less than 5 years in the House of Commons and no experience of government. Tony Blair meanwhile stepped down as Prime Minister at 53, an age when most career politicians would still see a long future on the front benches ahead of them.
Since Margaret Thatcher stood down at 65, a General Election has not been won by a leader over 51 but does this trend say more about voters than it does about politicians and do we anticipate better results from younger politicians? The expectation that leaders should be young and vibrant saw the end of leadership hopes of Sir Menzies Campbell and Ken Clark, both still respected elder statesmen of their parties but neither considered a vote winner. If this is how those running the country treat the over 60s, how does that affect older sections of the rest of society?
Democratically, there has been progress for young people with a recent Parliamentary vote in favour of lowering the voting age. 16 year olds can legally marry, join the army and pay taxes but have not had a say in how their country or local community should be run. Any stressful issues they may have such as exams do not prohibit them from having an opinion and, indeed, the pressures on a 16 year old at school are no less distracting than financial or family issues faced by adults. Many young people are more politically conscious than their parents, perhaps because they don’t have the power of a vote, and as they are directly affected by many of the issues politicians discuss feel left out of debates. There should also be no social barriers preventing young people from standing for local council, a 20 year old can represent a 70 year old just as well as a 70 year old can represent a 20 year old.
The British film industry had a pair of successes in the last twelve months with “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “Quartet”, both featuring a cast of retired people being creative with their lives. “Song For Marion” released in February 2013 similarly features an older cast whilst Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzeneger and Bruce Willis are successfully recreating their 1980s action roles and proving they still have box office appeal. At the other end of the scale, child stars have been popular ever since Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple wowed Hollywood in the 1930s. Recent British films such as “Son Of Rambow” and “Diary Of A Wimpy Kid” were commercial hits with young leads whilst the Harry Potter franchise proved that very young acting talent can handle high profile, demanding roles. That the 2013 Oscars nominations featured both the youngest and oldest ever Best Actress nominees is suggestive of diversity and that the Academy won’t simply recognise achievement from a narrow age range.
Television, often obsessed with youth, has presented older people in a variety of ways over the years. “Eastenders” and “Coronation Street” today rely heavily on storylines focussing on young casts but without the likes of Dot Cotton and Ken Barlow as senior figures, the soaps would lack experience and quality. Sit-com, a genre traditionally based upon stereotypes, has changed over the years in their presentation of the elderly. “In Sickness And In Health” and “Fawlty Towers” presented older characters as senile or troublesome whilst “Bread” and “Allo Allo” featured elderly characters as a burden. In the 1990s, older characters became central to sit-coms, for example “Waiting For God” and “As Time Goes By” and whilst Victor Meldrew in “One Foot In The Grave” is by no means a role model for older people, he is at least proactive.
There have been a number of cases in recent years of people being dropped from television for being “too old”. Arlene Phillips was replaced as a Strictly Come Dancing judge by the younger, more glamorous Alesha Dixon and Miriam O’Reilly successfully won a tribunal against the BBC after being removed as a presenter on “Countryfile” for being too old at 53. David Attenborough continues to be a popular television presence into his 80s and Patrick Moore presented “The Sky At Night” until his death at 89 with neither at risk of replacement which suggests that it is only women where age is an issue. 72 year old horse racing pundit John McCririck launched a law suit against Channel 4 after his contract was not renewed but his public persona and image may have been a factor in that decision. In a commercial world, youth sells but this is no excuse to devalue the input of more mature presenters.
The Big Society calls for all people to contribute to communities and, if we marginalise huge numbers of young and old, British society would not be the vibrant and interesting place it is. Website theamazings.com showcases the skills we can learn from the elderly and offers older people the chance to pass on their wisdom. Similarly youngpeoplematter.org was set up to show that young people in Clapham are not all knife-wielding hoodies and aims to direct young people from the area onto a positive path. Britain has a wealth of talent in both young and old, when celebrating what is great about the country we shouldn’t forget what both groups have to offer.