Sunday 15 December 2019

Emer O'Kelly: It seems age, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder

According to a recent survey, perception of age depends on our quality of life and security

Emer O'Kelly

I gave a friend of mine a magnifying glass for Christmas. It was a bit of a joke, because I spotted it in an antique shop a couple of days after we'd been discussing age, and he'd been repeating his mantra that "there is nothing to recommend the ageing process".

(It was also, to do myself justice, a rather nice-looking object.) Co-incidentally, he's 58. He also gets up at six every morning and goes either to the gym or for a five-mile walk. And he works a 60-hour week. Very few people would think of him as "old" despite his jokes.

But according to government research by the UK Department for Work and Pensions, men think old age begins at 58. Women think it begins at 60, apparently, and the researchers put that down to the fact that men (potentially) live shorter lives.

And the moment we no longer consider ourselves as "young" is when we reach 40. The research produced a whole load of statistics and views, but that's the one that gets on my wick. It infuriates me when people speak of men and women in their 20s and 30s as "young people". Because when the term is used in Ireland, we use it to excuse grown men and women copping out of taking responsibility for themselves.

I knew an entire family of men and women ranging in age from their late 20s to their mid-30s. They lived in a house provided by their father who also paid all the utility bills, paid for a cleaning woman, and paid the running costs of a car for each of them. Only two of them actually worked. And one of them told me in a moment of drunken frankness, "We've got a sweet little deal going, and anyone who tries to upset it had better watch their step." And no, the father was not a rich man.

That's not carefree youth, that's calculated, ruthless free-loading by adults who should have a better-tuned moral compass.

The UK survey included respondents across the age spectrum, and, not surprisingly, those in the age group 16 to 24 thought that middle age begins at 32. The over-80s thought it began at 52. I certainly believe that people in their 50s are in the prime of life, and I suppose that can be defined as regarding the 50s as middle age.

Equally, I can remember at the age of 18 looking ahead to the far-distant landmark of 30, and shivering in horror at how old I would be and feel. (Although when I was around 22, I used to tell people I was 28, sometimes stretching it to 30: I wanted the confidence that I believed belonged to a 30-year-old.)

The film actor Dirk Bogarde wrote in his autobiography of waking up on his 30th birthday, and realising that middle age had begun. He acted upon the feeling and changed his life totally, giving up his life in a home counties manor-house and moving to the south of France.

If you took your marker from the biblical three score and 10 as a life-span, he reasoned, then 30 was the beginning of middle age. He went on working into his 80s, interestingly, and made probably his finest movies in his 70s.

Certainly, "thinking yourself older" is probably less foolish than straining to be young, whatever the reasons. Middle-aged men making eejits of themselves in night clubs spring to mind, trying to fool themselves that 20-year -olds enjoy their company, even fancy them. What is actually fancied is the middle-aged person's financial ability to buy endless quantities of over-priced alcohol.

Although men aren't alone in that kind of idiocy. I knew a married woman who went rather loopy when she hit her 40s, and started going to clubs. She confided it was absolutely marvellous to have all these young men in their early 20s really fancying her. Even by biting my tongue I couldn't stop myself from asking her to remember being 20, and what she, indeed all of us, thought at that age about people as ancient as 30, much less 40.

Another figure produced in the UK research has people under 50 believing that old age begins at 46. Slip into the over-50 category, and the definition of old age from such "ancients" is that it actually begins at 62-and-a-half. That would seem to imply that as the cliche would have it, age, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

My own father, who was 14 years younger than my mother, was obsessed with seeming young, rather than being classed with her. Yet he had one of the oldest mindsets I ever came across. All the windows in the house were professionally sealed and made un-openable for fear of draughts.

Television came into the house only when I was about to leave home; radio was forbidden if he was at home in case he might have to hear "that jungle rubbish". Everyone had to go to bed at the same time as he did, and nobody was permitted to use the lavatory during the night in case the opening of a door disturbed his sleep.

Outside, he liked to give the impression of being happy-go-lucky, apart from constantly drawing attention to his fitness and youthful looks. And yes, it was embarrassing.

But one of the most interesting statistics to emerge from the UK survey is that quality of life and security have everything to do with

perceptions of age. People living in local authority housing thought that old age began five years earlier than those who had bought or were buying their own houses.

And possibly saddest of all: among the unemployed, middle age was considered to begin a huge nine years earlier than the age set by those in full-time work.

Yet against this, men stop feeling young earlier than women do, at 38 as against nearly 43 for women: that could have a lot to do, it seems to me, with the fact that more men than women are in the paid workforce, something that is even more the case in Ireland than in Britain.

Here, a far higher percentage of women believe in the "right to choose to work" rather than in a duty to contribute to the economy and their family's financial wellbeing. When someone else is responsible for the bills, it's a great protection against those giveaway worry lines.

But the survey has produced wildly contradictory attitudes. And most of the attitudes didn't need any research. We all know that teenagers think anyone over 25 is decrepit. We all know that a satisfying job/career keeps you young. We all know that when you're 50, 80 doesn't seem that old provided you can expect to keep your faculties operational.

And, above all, we all know (or should know) that having repeated cosmetic surgery, dressing your mutton as lamb, or trying to bop your way into the affections of someone young enough to be your son/daughter doesn't work: it just makes you look pathetic.

Working hard, being warm towards other people, and keeping an open mind: that's the secret. Well, I certainly hope so!

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