Bright Old Things: the old-timers who have found a late burst of creativity

Who says ageing means slowing down? As an exhibition celebrating their work opens at Selfridges, Genevieve Roberts meets the artists enjoying second or third careers

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"I'm thrilled to be ancient. I could only wish that everyone has as wonderful an old age as me," says Molly Parkin, 82, fashion editor turned writer and painter, who is one of 14 leading designers and artists exhibiting her work in the windows of Selfridges from Thursday.

For once, this isn't a celebration of the potential of youth, as with the previous three years of Selfridges' new talent project. Instead, these creators, many whom are approaching, or are beyond, traditional retirement age, are enjoying second or third careers. And these Bright Old Things – who include the retailer turned designer Nick Wooster, the punk musician Bruno Wizard, former accountant turned artist Roger Miles and policewoman turned artist Sand Laurenson – are part of an increasing brigade of Britons who see career fulfilment soar with maturity.

Parkin believes that living through the Blitz taught her to "learn to treasure life and make something of it", and has no intention of retiring. "Painting is my life. I wake up and start painting," she says. The Goldsmiths graduate, now sober for 27 years after many years of alcohol dependency, has always admired older people. "My oldest lover was 81, when I was 22," she remembers. "I gave my virginity to a man 30 years older than me. I had wonderful grandparents, and my grandfathers were the most important element in my life. The most difficult part of life is the middling years, when you're leaving a particular radiance of youth behind."

Roger Miles, 57, is also enjoying a retirement renaissance. The former chartered accountant, who worked for Deloitte for 32 years, recently graduated from Chelsea College of Arts with a degree in fine art. "With the age of political leaders and CEOs decreasing, youth seems more fashionable than experience. Most of us felt that we'd done as much as we could by our early 50s at Deloitte, where 53 or 54 is the average retirement age," he says. "I didn't want to go to the golf course every day. I wanted to make things – it's wonderful to see something come out of a plain piece of paper and my inspiration comes from dipping into my personal history." As for the term Bright Old Things, Miles is flattered. "I'm just happy to be called bright," he says.

He is joined by Michael Lisle-Taylor, 45, who was in the Navy for 12 years before becoming a sculptor. He believes younger people's attitudes towards work have a positive influence on all generations. "When people had a career for life, there was not a lot of advice, we just went into something our parents had followed, or we had seen locally," he says. "I think we're inspired by young people's attitudes – their bravery – while realising the value of our skills. There's a fearlessness that people can lose because of previous mistakes, and increasing responsibility with age makes people cautious. But experience gives older generations more self-confidence."

A spokesperson for Selfridges, which is giving each Bright Old Thing a high-street window, with events, performances and products sold in store, says: "We've noticed, over the past three to five years, the profile of our suppliers starting to change, with an increasing number of emerging brands created by an older generation of entrepreneurs. Most have had previous careers and decided one day to negotiate a sea change in their life and start something afresh. This prompted us to look into how we could celebrate what we see as a trend. It's about shifting the focus from our youth-obsessed culture onto the tremendous appeal and huge creativity to be found within older generations."

It is a trend seen across all areas of employment. A Scottish Widows survey found that eight per cent of people choose a career change upon "retiring", while one in 20 start their own business. The actor Daniel Day-Lewis, 57, is part-way through a five-year stonemasonry apprenticeship, while the former Blur drummer Dave Rowntree, 50, now works as a solicitor for the City law firm Kingsley Napley.

Economics plays its part in people's choice to continue work. Sand Laurenson, 54, who worked for the London Metropolitan Police while bringing up two children before becoming the Royal Academy's oldest postgraduate student in 2002, says: "Many socio-economic influences are at play. The days of retiring from one job aged 62, with an adequate pension and gold pocket watch, are simply not attainable for most of us. Some may see their options diminished by this, I see (had to see) it opening my options."

Bruno Wizard, 64, who performs in punk band The Homosexuals, was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease six months ago. He says, "I've never regarded myself as old – I won't feel old when I'm 90 – no way! I get energy from ideas, and satisfaction from bringing them into a shared world. The establishment knows it can't sustain the baby boom generation with the NHS, and one angle is to make older people aware of being useful economic units."

But, as Wizard says, this is only one factor. Wendy Loretto, Professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Edinburgh, believes that "it is too simple to suggest that this growing phenomenon is simply financial – many people are motivated to do something different, to give back, to pursue hobbies as careers. We are midway through research for the Extending Working Lives Project, which suggests that there is a lot more entrepreneurial activity among older people. We're catching up with countries such as Finland, where 'active ageing' is seen as a life stage, rather than a decline."

Jonathan Collie founded Trading Times last year to connect employers with over-50s. More than 300 small and medium-size businesses have signed up, and last month, Barclays became the first corporate member. He says that the primary reasons why his candidates work is to give them a sense of purpose, and seek fulfilment. They want to give back to society. Financial motivation comes as the fifth reason, and is important as people value older people's skills.

Collie believes that the change in attitude is overdue. "Stereotypical language surrounding over-50s includes crumbling health and redundant skills, rather than talk of trading on experiences," he says. "People have 20 extra years of healthy life expectancy – they don't want to spend them sitting in front of the television."

Perhaps, as Laurenson suggests, it's the difference between society seeing people as old, or mature. "I veer between feeling ancient and juvenile on a daily basis," she says. "When I make work, I feel ageless. My aim is to burn bright and die old. Age is not something to be respected per se: some older people, creative or not, have lived long and learned nothing from their experiences. Maturity is different, it has to be earned."

Comments