Editor-At-Large: Baby boomers can't retire – they need the money

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The Independent Online

Perhaps it was his basic command of English that resulted in a naked moment of truth, but when Fabio Capello described David Beckham as "a bit too old" to play in the national team he was only being honest. But telling someone – especially an iconic figure – that they are a bit past it, is, in our culture, the height of bad manners. If anyone ever implies that my years (63) mean I should be behaving in a certain fashion, I am extremely offended. Is this because I'm a baby boomer?

Members of my generation have steadfastly refused to age like our parents. We have rewritten the script, chucked the old notion of being a pensioner out of the window. Now, some social commentators think we're selfish and that our tendency to put ourselves first is damaging the hopes and aspirations of another generation. Critics say we're hogging jobs, clogging up the system and denying the young their start on the ladder.

Baby boomers grew up promoting the idea of youth; and then, as we got older, declared that 40 was the new 30. Then 50 was the new 40. And so on. Next year, a crisis looms – baby boomers reach 65 – and more of them will be working, to supplement their private pensions (which have plummeted since 2008), or because they simply can't live on what the state provides.

Recent figures show there are more over-65s working than ever before – a grand total of 823,000, mostly in part-time jobs. Leaving aside financial considerations, mentally, my generation has a different attitude to work to that of many young people: there's a deep-seated fear of being bored, feeling on the shelf, washed-up and unwanted. That's why more of us than ever do voluntary work. We want to feel needed.

Our reluctance to submit to the ageing process (for philosophical or financial reasons) has had a big knock-on effect in the job market. Today, a third of all graduates are on the dole or in lowly skilled jobs six months after leaving university.

Who's to blame? Not necessarily the baby boomers. I agree with David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, who says that not enough is being done to prepare students for work. They get degrees, but not the skills to apply for a job, write a decent CV or turn up punctually and operate productively in the workplace. That can be rectified in time: universities and colleges can make employability part of the curriculum. But will that really make these youngsters attractive to employers?

Older workers have experience and better people skills. In retail, they make customers feel comfortable. They are articulate and friendly. Beckham, at 35, might be too old to play for his country (even if the manner in which he found out was discourteous in the extreme) but he has plenty of other skills that mean he will be highly sought after. He's charming and personable, a perfect ambassador for all sorts of products and brands.

The age group really suffering in this recession is not the baby boomers or graduates, but full-time long-serving workers in their fifties, who are the first to be laid off in a job cull. More than 170,000 have now been unemployed for more than a year, and the number is set to rise as businesses downsize. Next year, when public sector cuts kick in, even more of this age group will be on the scrap heap.

The Government might have pledges to abolish the retirement age, but that's little consolation to these workers who find themselves redundant at 50 with very little prospect of getting another full-time job or something commensurate with their experience and qualifications. This is enforced retirement, not a life choice. Record numbers of women over 50 are not saving at all, and one in four faces poverty in retirement. That is the real tragedy of this recession. The Government has said it wants to scrap the retirement age but, the truth is, the jobs available to older workers will tend to be lowly paid and part-time.

A large number of pensioners still have mortgages: 12 per cent of the 60-74 age group owe an average of £60,000. That's quite a debt. Many took out loans to help their children get through university (and workers in their fifties will have even larger debts, as their children are younger). Don't blame baby boomers for refusing to stop work in their sunset years – it's not an option.

Joanna jars: Cancer doesn't steer clear of vegetarians

Joanna Lumley is a mate, so I choose my words with care. She couldn't be more in demand, appearing on BBC 1 in the new series of Mistresses, filming a series about Greece next year, and, although her recent stage turn garnered less than rave reviews, critics thought the fault lay with the play ( La Bête) rather than her contribution. No matter – it transfers to Broadway in autumn anyway. In an interview to promote a new chutney that helps raise money for the cause close to her heart – the Gurkhas – Lumley encountered a young female from a Sunday newspaper who (unlike 99 per cent of the male population) didn't succumb to her famous charm. She asked Joanna if she thought that not eating meat stops you getting cancer. Unfortunately, Joanna fell for the bait and said yes. Lumley claims she's never had any serious illnesses "because I'm a vegetarian". Sadly, this is pure hokum. Linda McCartney is probably the most famous vegetarian who died of cancer, and there are thousands of others. Cancer doesn't avoid people who eat celery and carrots; or single out those who eat burgers and steaks. Lumley may say she has the constitution of an ox, but so do thousands of women who wake up one day and find they have breast cancer. Cancer is cruel, capricious and strikes without warning. Last week I heard another friend had been diagnosed. She's not a vegetarian – she's unlucky.

Take a basket, save the world

I don't care what greenwash emanates from the bosses of our leading supermarkets, they are all still handing out plastic bags willy-nilly. Last week I visited Aldi and Sainsbury's where most customers were cramming their purchases into plastic carriers. And the amount of packaging is still gross. But there is another way. Three years ago, San Francisco banned plastic bags in supermarkets. Now it plans fresh legislation to include all retailers, from grocery stores to small businesses, with a few practical exceptions – plastic is permitted for dry cleaning, frozen food, newspapers and fruit or nuts. Another law will impose a five-cent charge on paper sacks. It's estimated that the ban has prevented 100 million plastic bags being used in the city. Boris should adopt the idea for London.

British film has lost its way

I was a judge at the Edinburgh Film Festival last year, and my distinguished panel included the fabulous actor Frank Langella. We sat through (and that is the right word) 11 British films in four days. Most were parochial pieces of social observation. Frank was puzzled – why weren't they more entertaining or, at least, a bit more challenging? The best was Moon, directed by David Bowie's son, Duncan Jones, a brilliant low-budget sci-fi epic with a great script, special effects and music. I can't join the queue protesting at the demise of the British Film Council, which Culture minister Jeremy Hunt wants to cull. Staffing mushroomed in 10 years from 54 in 2000 to 94, costing £2.9m (enough to make a low-budget movie), and the chief exec's pay rose from £134,041 to £235,687, way more than the Prime Minister. Let's keep the Film Council, but scale it back, and remind the staff what they are there for.