100-somethings - the booming generation

By the year 2030, there could be 30,000 centenarians, reports Hilary Bower
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The Independent Online
The UK is undergoing an unprecedented "oldie" boom. The number of people living beyond their tenth decade has soared in the past 50 years, leaping from 271 in 1951 and 1,185 in 1971, to over 4,400 today. By 2030, census statisticians predict, the "100-something" generation will number 30,000.

With lives that span the invention of the motor car and the aeroplane, two world wars, as well as the introduction of radio, television and computer technology, today's centenarians straddle a century of social and technological change greater than any before.

A survey of 100 centenarians to be published this week, commissioned by the housing and home-support charity DGAA Homelife (formerly the Distressed Gentlefolk Aid Association) portrays a diverse group whose lives put paid to myths about the demons of "modern" life. The study, carried out by the Centre for Policy on Ageing, highlights the greying of the population and reveals that working mothers, small families, late marriages and job insecurity are not new phenomena.

Most of the 80 women out of the 100 centenarians interviewed had worked. Their jobs - teacher, midwife, magistrate, farm director, gas repairer, butcher, florist, fashion buyer - contradict the portrayal of women of that generation being home-makers and nothing else.

Florence Tottey, 10 times a great-grandmother and now living in a nursing home in Cheltenham, took over as director of the family farm in 1942 when her husband died, and managed it into her 70s, while 102-year-old Ella Scotchmere from Fulham spent almost 40 years with two City accountancy firms and 13 years after retirement doing wages for a security firm three days a week.

Several of the women maintain that birth control is "the greatest improvement of the past 100 years", and many had clearly limited their family's size: half had only one or two children while a quarter of the centenarians have no children at all. Though the vast majority of the 80 women interviewed were married, many did so late after the death of their first love in the First World War, a sadness which was often compounded by the loss of sons and husbands in the Second World War.

Ella Scotchmere also lost her sweetheart to the trenches, but lived with two female friends in a domestic partnership that lasted 60 years and eventually included the husband she married at age 59. Now living independently in sheltered housing, swimming, playing bowls and planning the travelling holidays she loves, Mrs Scotchmere says she doesn't really dwell on how things have changed. "When you're involved in everything, you're busy, you are part of it and you don't really notice the changes as they are happening."

Asked about the most significant change of the century, most centenarians plumped for the invention now so common - the internal combustion engine. It's hard to believe there are those who remember the days when cars first took to the roads.