Is the tedious cult of youth finally slipping into its dotage?

In a recent vote for the best female rock singer, the number one choice was a granny
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THAT UNLIKELY philosopher Ginger Spice has hit upon something important. Standing arms linked with Nelson Mandela on a Spice Girls' tour of South Africa last year, Geri Halliwell told the sprightly Mr Mandela that old age was a matter of attitude. You are as young as the girl that you feel, she suggested, as it were, suggestively. The recently re-married Mr Mandela did what most men do when surrounded by several Spice Girls. He laughed.

But Ginger's joke is a reflection of a wider change at the end of what has been the Dorian Gray century. We have spent a hundred years bedevilled by worship of the cult of youth, yet there are signs that is coming to an end. It began easily enough with Oscar Wilde's 1891 fantasy, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, in which a man stays young despite his debaucheries, while his portrait crumbles with age.

Hollywood movies, rock and roll and television have all contributed to the sense that this has been not merely the century of the Common Man, but also the century in which youth has become god. Past generations reading Romeo and Juliet recognised that Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers got, more or less, what they deserved. Only in the 20th century have we come to the conclusion that the besotted teenage halfwit Romeo and his equally dopey lover are deserving of our uncritical sympathy.

But the signs are everywhere that the cult of youth is in trouble. When asked to vote for the best female rock singers in a recent survey, the number one choice was a granny. Not any granny of course, but Tina Turner. Yet a glam granny in a mini-skirt is still a granny. The youngest female applauded in the survey was Madonna, a mere slip of a thing, hitting 40. Rock dinosaurs like Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin still rule the Earth and as some of us discovered last weekend at Wembley, today's Dorian Gray band remains the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger still does a magnificent impersonation of a man in possession of a decaying portrait hidden in his attic.

But even worse than the failure to find convincingly fresh youth idols, is news that Britain is creating a generation of teenage wimps. According to the Royal Geographical Society, British youngsters risk becoming a generation of softies, too frightened to go off and explore the world because teenagers are products of our increasingly risk-averse culture. Sir Martin Holdgate of the RGS suggests that eagerness for law suits, what he calls "blame culture" and cosseting by schools has led to a decline in challenges for young people.

So while greybeards like Richard Branson risk their lives to balloon around the world, teachers are increasingly refusing to risk their careers to lead young people in tough outdoor pursuits. "Were Captain Scott's last Antarctic expedition held today," Sir Martin said, "no doubt it would be condemned as a disaster. The media would demand a public inquiry and the relatives of the survivors would be urged to sue the Royal Geographical Society."

And if a modern day Captain Laurence Oates were to leave the expedition tent in a snowstorm as he did in 1912, nowadays it would not be to sacrifice his life so his comrades might live. The Capt Oates of 1999 would be off to call his lawyer on his mobile phone, set up a meeting with his publicist and offer a tabloid newspaper the home-video pictures of the expedition gone wrong.

Even worse than this risk-averse sogginess, health surveys suggest that British young people have never been so fat and unfit, with the worst rate of drug abuse and teenage pregnancies in Western Europe. The active risk-taking of exploration has become the lazy risk-taking of the slob - cholesterol, computer games, cocaine and unprotected coitus. It is true that Hesiod was deploring the frivolity of youth as early as the eighth century BC, but today's signs of decay in youth culture come precisely when older Britons appear to be having more fun.

Everyone knows that as a nation we are living longer, eating better and spending more money on staying young through everything from designer clothes to plastic surgery, but it is more than that. Greybeards are demonstrably Born to be Wild.

The Henley Centre has produced statistics suggesting the creation of a new group of middle-aged Richard Branson-style thrill seekers. In the five years from 1991 there was a 41 per cent increase in motorcycle accidents involving 30-to-40 year olds, while accidents among 17-19 year olds have fallen by 57 per cent.

From America comes news that fifty-somethings are part of a new wave of grey-haired promiscuity. According to health workers in Florida, famed as a home for America's wrinkled and retired, there is an increase in Aids cases among the over-fifties. This is a result of the hard-partying culture among the newly retired, who are so eager to form new relationships they behave as badly as, well, teenagers. Moreover, thanks to the ageing post-war baby boom generation who still like Harleys and Hendrix and thought they invented sex'n'drugs'n'rock'n'roll, there are just so many more older people around.

They have more money than ever before and their profoundly influential habits of protest and rebellion forged in the Sixties and Seventies have not died. There are 15 million consumers in Britain over the age of 55, and 80 per cent of this country's wealth is in the hands of the over 45s. In 30 years time the number of young will fall significantly while those aged between 52 to 65 will rise by 15 per cent.

While the cult of youth will never completely give way to the cult of old age, the generation which grew up in that window of opportunity after the invention of the Pill and before Aids, will still be looking for Viagra- inspired thrills in 2020 and beyond. The Grey Pound will be even more significant, although the last people to catch up to these changes in Britain have been employers. For the most blinkered businesses, "downsizing" has meant culling older, more experienced and therefore more expensive staff. But all is not lost for the wrinklies.

A chain of British travel agents has recently announced it plans to train older workers because many of us prefer to buy holidays from people with a few miles on the clock. DIY stores like B&Q, Sainsbury's, Domino's Pizza and the insurance company Scottish Equitable are among employers who have directly targeted recruitment towards older people, and even Britain's favourite post-war poem in 1996, Jenny Joseph's "Warning" was a vision of ageing female rebellion: "When I am old I shall wear purple."

For the ever maturing British grey masses, there is also one piece of supreme consolation about not being a teenager now. In 20 year's time the middle aged former hippies who watched the Stones last week will, in old age, still be able to shake their Zimmers to "Satisfaction" and "Brown Sugar" and "Jumping Jack Flash" with a warm feeling of nostalgia.

It is more difficult to imagine that in 40 or 50 years time the Nineties teenage generation which grew up on gangsta rap, 2Live Crew, the Prodigy and NWA will sit listening to "Smack My Bitch Up" while holding hands on a starlit cruise for the elderly, gaze into each other's eyes and whisper, "Darling, they're playing our song."

Gavin Esler is a presenter on

BBC News24. Fergal Keane is away