How lucky we are not to be young: A new study finds a nation of happy fiftysomethings. Jojo Moyes talks to members of a generation who've never had it so good

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The Independent Online
'I'M VERY glad I'm not in my twenties or thirties today. I'd be worrying about my job, about buying a house, even whether it was fair to have children.' Vivien Fowle works full-time for a charity, lives in her own home in east London and is content to be 54 years old.

Her content is typical of today's fiftysomething generation - the 'happiest, healthiest and wealthiest' this century - according to a lifestyle survey published last week. The survey, by Mintel, the marketing organisation, found that those between 50 and 64 spend more money each week than any other age group: pounds 124 a head compared with pounds 107 among the under-thirties and pounds 112 among the 30 to 49-year-olds.

Too young to have anything but childhood memories of the Second World War and yet old enough to have experienced the economic boom and the prime years of the Welfare State, today's 'third-age' generation feels that life is better than ever, according to the survey. 'Whatever might be said about youth or your schooldays being the best time of your life, those that have lived a bit longer clearly think otherwise,' Angela Hughes, Mintel's consumer research manager, said.

So what makes this particular generation believe they have had it so much better than both their parents and their children? One answer is that they reached adulthood during that brief golden age, lasting for about 25 years, when it seemed that unemployment had been abolished for ever. 'When I left school at 16,' said Mrs Fowle, 'there were more jobs than applicants. I had loads of jobs before I got married at 23. Many of my contemporaries who came from working-class backgrounds without further education have very good jobs, whereas now you have to be ahead at the start, with a degree at least.'

Brian Sanders, a 56-year-old freelance illustrator who lives in Saffron Walden in Essex, makes the same point. He grew up never expecting to be out of work. 'But for people graduating from art school now,' he said, 'the chances of always being in work are quite slim. The area I work in is honing down and we are producing more and more students to do less and less work.'

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, UK unemployment was well under two per cent in a good year, slightly over it in a bad year. Almost nobody expected to be out of work for more than a few months. Now, unemployment is around 10 per cent - and the figure would be much higher if it was computed on the same basis as it was in the 1960s.

'I think for my generation there was an optimism about the future which is absolutely absent today,' Mrs Fowle said. 'The Thatcher years have changed the way people think. The newer generations are much more self-absorbed and not so concerned for society as a whole. They're having to look out for themselves - for their jobs, enough money to pay for their healthcare, their children's education, housing.'

The second big piece of luck for Mrs Fowle's generation and class was the growth of owner occupation. Her parents had never expected to own their home. She bought her first home - a three-bedroom maisonette - in 1966 for pounds 5,000. At that time, housing was cheap and plentiful. The first of the great property booms arrived in the early 1970s - the average price of new homes almost doubled to pounds 10,690 within two years - putting millions of people of quite modest means on the road to enormous and unexpected capital gains. Somebody who bought a house for under pounds 3,000 in 1962 could find it worth as much as pounds 65,000 now. Government policies for Mrs Fowle's and subsequent generations encouraged owner occupation by giving tax relief on mortgage interest repayments. Now, the amount of relief is far more restricted.

'We absolutely got the best end of the property market,' Mrs Fowle said. 'It's much harder to get on the ladder now. There was also cheap rented housing and lots of council housing for young families. Now that's virtually disappeared.'

To some extent, the contentment of Mrs Fowle and her generation is the result of being brought up with low expectations. They were raised in the austerity of wartime.

'To me,' said one 57-year- old, 'austerity is normal and all post-war affluence a mirage. Wildly enjoyable, a real treat, but surely bound to disappear for good one day. No matter how much money you had in the 1940s there was simply nothing you could buy with it. The shelves were empty the cupboards bare and what there was was rationed. I remember feeling something like stunned amazement at catching sight of a tattered old pre-war boys' magazine with its page after page of advertisements. Bicycles] Airguns] Gramophones] So there really was a time when such mythical goodies were in the shops.

'It's something that anyone just a few years younger or older can never share with me - that sense of the rightness of not owning. I still go round switching off lights and I still feel a twinge of guilt at buying new clothes that are not essential replacements for old ones.'

The children of the fiftysomethings, by contrast, fear they will not be able to keep themselves in the manner to which they have become accustomed. Even if they have jobs and qualifications, they do not expect lifetime security.

There have been other disappointments: they were brought up, for example, in the expectation that sex could be free of danger and guilt. Their parents celebrated the advent of the pill (though it probably came a fraction too late for those now in their mid- to late- fifties). Buying condoms - the embarrassment to 1950s youth was memorably described in Stan Barstow's novel A Kind of Loving - would never again be necessary, they thought. 'I feel incredibly sorry for the younger generation,' said Mr Sanders. 'I have lived through an age where the most you could get was VD . . . It hardly seems possible that that freedom was a momentary thing. I think that's really sad. Although in a way perhaps it will help people build stronger relationships.'

Many of the over-fifties believe, too, that they got the best of the state education system. The grammar schools were the conveyor belt to an expanding university system for bright working-class and middle-class children. (Their less gifted peers, though, mostly had a poor deal in the secondary moderns. In those days, the middle-classes sought private education for their less able offspring; now they use it for the brighter ones.) Student grants were generous in the early 1960s - not far short of a third of average wages. Since then, they have more than halved in value and today's undergraduates expect to end their courses heavily in debt, either to banks or to the official student loans agency.

Graduate unemployment was almost unheard of in the 1960s; today, it is above the national average, at least during the first year after completing a course. Graduates make job applications by the dozen and the hundred, compiling CVs from scraps of travel and work experience. Many ring employers, offering to work for nothing. In the meantime, they draw the dole. 'We never, ever did that,' said one graduate now in his fifties. 'The dole was for poor unfortunates turned out of the factory, shipyard or mill. It was unthinkable for people like us. Our parents would not even hear of it.'

It is not all good news for the fiftysomethings. According to the Mintel survey, dreams of early retirement have, for some, turned into a 'nightmare of redundancy, unemployment and poverty'.

Jo Staunton-Lambert, 52, now sales director of a bridal wear company, was among those to discover that when the recession hit, her generation was often first in the firing line.

'The 1980s were extremely youth centred. The younger generation coming through needed the jobs and you had to make way for them,' she said. 'Although this year, I think people are just starting to value the experience of older people again.'

Middle-age and even bereavement could also be a disadvantage when it came to claiming benefit, as she found before she was re-employed.

'It's very hard to get any support because of the savings you've managed to put by during your working life.' she said. 'In my case, it was even harder to get any unemployment benefit because I - like many women my age - received a small widow's pension.'

Yet Mrs Staunton-Lambert, like Mrs Fowle and Mr Sanders, agreed that her generation was 'streets ahead' of others in its experience of the Welfare State and the quality of life. 'I don't know if we are the happiest generation - I think that depends on the individual,' she said. 'But overall I do think we had the best of it. We had much more leisure time than our parents did. We were also more geared up to it. We are much fitter because the opportunites were there. We learned to plan for doing other things like foreign travel, which was made possible by cheap air flights.

'I think there is a lot more pressure on the younger generation. We were not under the pressure that the youth of today are under - to find and keep jobs, to get somewhere to live. Their money - and their lifestyles - are tied down a lot more than ours ever were.'

Some fiftysomethings worry about their pensions. But this is probably more realistically a problem for those a decade or so younger - even the most cost-conscious Government minister concedes that, if universal old-age pensions are to go, they must be phased out very gradually. Perhaps they have more reason to worry about the state of the health service and their prospects of getting adequate care in their seventies and eighties.

But the rising house prices and occupational pensions will have given many middle-class people a sufficient financial cushion for their declining years - the proportion of pensioners who enjoy incomes above the national average is set to grow rapidly. They were the 'lucky generation' and their luck may just about hold out to retirement.

(Photographs omitted)