I tried another tack. Had anyone noticed their parents refusing to grow old in the same way as their grandparents? Perhaps some had mothers and fathers who were still interested in pop music, kept up on the latest films and fashions, regularly visited restaurants, and loved going off on holidays together?
After a long pause, a 20-year-old at the back of the room finally took the bait. "My dad still looks as young as he did 10 years ago," she announced. I nodded hopefully. This would provide just the lever I needed to swing the conversation back to the discrimination against the middle-aged in the job market. "Yes, he looks about 40," she continued. "Actually, it's very embarrassing. I had one of my girl friends round for the evening and we were sitting there chatting when suddenly the door burst open and he came in from his jog all done up in trendy tracksuit and air-cushion Nikes and started chatting up my friend. To tell the truth, I'll be glad when he does grow old."
That little episode took place nearly a decade ago. It says much for the way in which I still regarded young people as a privileged sect that my first reaction to this story was mild embarrassment. There was surely something slightly pathetic about the over-50s desperately attempting to prove that they were forever young instead of accepting the inevitable and trading in their tracksuit and Nikes for dressing-gown and slippers.
I very much doubt if any contemporary student would think of making a similar complaint. The young have not only grown accustomed to the sight of the over-50s refusing to lie back quietly and wait until their pension kicks in, but they're also aware that if they object they might find themselves with a fight on their hands.
Those who are now 50-plus and enjoy a good standard of living and a reasonable state of health have started to speak up on their own behalf. They've begun by redefining middle age. Ten years ago, 40 was happily accepted as the mid-point of life, the time when a character in Kate Millett's Sita could reflect: "If I was 40 I was no longer young; when you are no longer young you are old. Old age is only the tedious debilitating prelude to death, being dead while still minimally alive."
Nowadays it's a rare month when I don't receive an invitation to a friend's 50th birthday party which makes some jocular reference to middle age having finally arrived. Even though the 50-pluses have been reading for some time that they're becoming a larger and more economically significant group (in the past five years the income of the 50-64 age group has jumped by 11 per cent - twice that for the under-30s) they've only recently begun to celebrate their status. There are plenty of things to celebrate. This group enjoys better health than similar generations in the past because of the comforting presence of the NHS throughout their lives: they have also, thanks to the dramatic expansion in higher education following the Robbins report, had unprecedented access to the benefits of universities and the former polytechnics.
Even more importantly, this is a group who have come to take a wide range of cultural and social freedoms for granted. For good or ill, the legacy of the 1960s means that the over-50s feel that they have as much right as any in the younger generation to examine or change their sexual practices, their gender orientation, their marital status, their attitude to drink and drugs. The so-called "emotional democracy" which allows us to end a relationship when it is no longer producing benefits for both partners is not now a feature of unsettled libidinous youth but a straightforward
self-conscious option for the new middle-aged.
Nowhere is this change of status more evident than in the increasing readiness of the over-50s to complain about aspects of the world which are not to their liking. A recent Gallup poll recorded a growing level of dissatisfaction within this group about the operation of the NHS: one in 10 of those questioned felt that they'd been treated differently from young people by the NHS and a similar proportion said ..TEXT: that they'd been refused treatment they would have been offered if they'd been younger.
But perhaps the biggest impact of this group can be seen in consumer culture. Advertisers and marketers who are only too well aware that the over-50s have more than pounds 100bn of disposable income to spend on goods and services not only find the greatest difficulty in tapping into this treasure chest but are more and more rocked back upon their heels by the readiness of this group to complain.
I spend some of my time talking to company conferences and I've almost lost count of the number of occasions on which I've been taken aside by the Head of Marketing and told that life is being made intolerable by the new "culture of complaint" which is so prevalent among the new middle- aged.There's a paranoid belief that much of this has been prompted by television consumer programmes ("that damned Anne Robinson") but little recognition that it stems from the general cynicism about consumerism which is common to the over-50s.
This, after all, is also a group who have grown up with mass advertising and commercial television and in the process has learnt the tricks of the trade: the real value of free offers, the bogus personalisation of direct mail, the dubious advantages of credit and loyalty cards. This is a group who rely increasingly on word of mouth when it comes to making decisions about large purchases and it's difficult to see how this will change as long as advertising and media companies are predominantly staffed by "creatives" who, in Jeremy Isaacs's words, continue to "attach an absurd priority to the young".
Those who are currently over 50 and affluent might, though, be well advised to make as much use as they can of their current situation: enjoy their new sports car (the average age of a Porsche owner is now 48) and their regular holidays (20 per cent of those over 55 take more than three holidays a year). At the moment, large redundancy payments, healthy property prices and the prospect of a good pension may make this age more desirable than at any time in the past. But there's a big cloud on the horizon. Pensions will shrink and involuntary retirement at 50 will become more and more the norm with the prospects of re-employment after that age becoming minimal (even now one-third of all men over 50 but below the pension age have no paid work). It is, perhaps, the right time for me to revive my seminar course on ageism.
EVE POLLARD, 52, JOURNALIST
`We're saying no to beige cardi-hood'
Editorial director of `Wedding Day' magazine.
"We tend to feel one age even though our passport says another. We're the first consumer-magazine generation and we're not going to grow old in the same way our mothers did. We're not heading towards beige cardi- hood. The acronym for us is Skins - Spending the Kids' Inheritance. We're people who realise we've worked jolly hard and want to spend our money and enjoy ourselves.
We're certainly more vocal about issues. This generation of women think they're as good as men, whereas the generation before tended to feel that men were in charge. Women of my age feel they're not just defined by family and children. We're still trying to look our best and go for promotion at work. Old age used to mean feeling invisible but our generation has more of a role, so I don't think we feel overlooked.
We'll still have strong opinions when we're older and we won't end up like some old colonel moaning that things aren't what they used to be. The thing we won't do is let go; to stop keeping up and taking an interest in modern culture. You've always got to be prepared to adapt and to be surprised by new things."
PETER YORK, 52, STYLE GURU
`We invented youth'
"People our age live longer, better, more healthily and have a richer quality of life. People with these privileges will continue to be outspoken. If you've got the money, time and confidence you'll kick up a stink about anything.
Baby-boomers are the generation who think they invented youth. They think it's a characteristic of their cohort. You can see a lot of people doing very well, like Cher, Tina Turner and Mick Jagger. In previous decades they wouldn't have been around.
We're the generation born after the great watershed of the war who made use of the unique benefits of further education - and that confidence continues. I certainly have no intention of giving up at a certain age."
CAROLINE COON, 54, CAMPAIGNER
`The trade-off for our youth is confidence'
Artist and founder of Release.
"I think our generation are learning to be adult in a different way. Getting old doesn't mean you can't have fun and go out raving all night. We realise there's this fantastic vista after your career when you still have another 20 or so years of retired life.
I'm in the middle of life looking at how older people are being treated. When I get to that stage, I'm going to fight for the pensioners to whom the Government is going to be extremely mean.
Personally I feel better than ever. The trade-off for youth is a sense of confidence which you can only get from experience. We're the first generation on earth who can hope to live to the full for a hundred years."
JANE GWILLIAM, 51, WRITER
`It's women who carry the biggest burden'
Author of `Connecting with Baby-Boomers' and director of Research International.
"We are a more powerful generation than our parents. We're certainly earning more and we're richer. But the downside is that people of my age believe that we're going to have our children dependent on us for longer, and then our parents.
But it's the women who carry the biggest burden. Our generation are expected to work, yet the men aren't `new men' and not always supportive. One major finding from the baby-boomer research we carried out is that the generation who felt they could change society in the 1960s and 1970s don't feel like that now. They feel they've got no control over society and more influence over friends and family."
FELIX DENNIS, 52, PUBLISHER
`I remember thinking, is this normal for people our age?'
Founder of `Maxim' magazine.
"Every day I wake up and for the first 30 seconds I really believe I'm 18 years old. I feel pretty groggy but when my legs hit the ground I think I'm young. I'm astonished when I look in the mirror and think it can't really be me.
I certainly have no intention of ageing gracefully and I don't think the rest of my generation do either. I held a party last week and it was full of 50-year-olds shovelling ice down their trousers and doing other stupid things. I remember thinking: is this normal behaviour for people of our age? It must be rather embarrassing for younger people to watch."
GILL SMILLIE, 50s, BUSINESSWOMAN
`I know I'll never stop being outspoken'
Chief executive of Conference Venues Countrywide.
"Our attitudes to life are completely different from our parents'. I certainly intend to keep going in my work - I can't envisage a time when I won't feel that way.
I was looking at an old picture of my mother recently and I realised that at the same age we look so different - people then assumed that they were old much earlier.
To a certain extent my generation assumes responsibility for itself in a way that previous ones haven't. I'm articulate and I speak my mind and I can't see that disappearing in 15 years' time. I'll never stop being outspoken and there's no way I'm going to go away to draw my pension and knit. I'll always be opinionated and fight for my rights."