Editor-At-Large: Yah boo to the youth cult

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The Independent Online

As the BBC kicks off its season of programming devoted to the elderly, their 10pm television news the other night devoted a large chunk of time to the current crisis in pension funding. It's a relief to realise that the over-50s are now hot news, and worthy of prime-time coverage outside such

As the BBC kicks off its season of programming devoted to the elderly, their 10pm television news the other night devoted a large chunk of time to the current crisis in pension funding. It's a relief to realise that the over-50s are now hot news, and worthy of prime-time coverage outside such worthy radio ghettos as You and Yours. For a long time now I've been writing that this country's obsession with youth is ludicrous, when it's the crumblies who have all the power, the disposable income and the ability to vote Labour in or out at the next election. Now Age Concern has published a report urging the scrapping of the retirement age and a survey which shows that the public think they should be given more choice about when to stop work. Of course, retiring isn't an option if you've already been made redundant because of your age, which still happens regardless of the law.

Help the Aged also published a report last week. (I wish these organisations didn't have negative-sounding names - if you wish to emphasise everything positive about being elderly, Age Celebration and Help National Treasures might be better.) This showed that the 45- to 59-year-old age group will far outstrip the number of adults under 30 - by 1.6 million - by 2017. Then there's the bombshell that we'll have more than five million pensioners over 80 within a generation.

If there's one person who has profited big time from these changing demographics it is Roger de Haan, the owner of Saga. In this month's Saga magazine he invites readers to fill in a questionnaire to reveal whether they would buy shares in the company if it were floated on the stock market. Either way, Mr De Haan, who owns the majority of the shares after buying out his brother Peter for £80m, is in a win-win situation. Saga's two main businesses, insurance and holidays, are thriving: the company made an astonishing £81.6m last year before tax. Now he plans to retire and wishes to sell the company, hence this bit of market research.

But Saga represents only one image of what it is to be over-50. For example, this month's magazine contains an interview with Michael Howard and a plea for readers to cough up the £250,000 shortfall needed to open the Churchill Museum next February - hardly surprising as the magazine's editor, Emma Soames, is related to the great man.

Saga's empire is an attractive option to 70-plus conservatives (with a small c) who want to feel they are still vaguely in the swing of things. But there is a huge gap in the market (and one the new owners of Saga would do well to focus on), presenting opportunities to cater for the 50-plus market who think they're 35. My generation - at least those who are vaguely left of centre - certainly don't behave sensibly, and wouldn't go on holiday with a bunch of pensioners if you paid us. And Michael Howard, with his corny musical tastes laid bare on Desert Island Discs, is about as thrilling in print as a chat with my local optician.

Instead of assuming that everyone over 50 likes vaguely the same thing (have you tried listening to Saga radio?), investors and venture capitalists should be reflecting on the fact that people of this age are most definitely not a homogeneous group. We already have careworn 30-year-olds with mortgages in suburbia and happily youthful inner-city loft dwellers in their sixties. And for every customer willing for pay for the Saga concept of ageing, there is a Hell's Angel on a Harley who has retired from banking and a cheese-seller who was a university professor.

The arguments for scrapping the retirement age are a no-brainer. How can the UK, where ideas and innovation are prized above all else, continue to kick people out of work on the basis of a birth certificate, as if that indicates a sell-by date on their mental capabilities? In the future there will be even less need for a workforce to sit in offices five days a week. As more and more businesses move call centres and IT departments out of the UK, what kind of office will be needed?

In 10 years' time, it will be ideas and solutions that are valued, as well as skill in dealing with customers - not things you generally learn in your teens. And this new generation of the elderly will be well versed in the art of complaining and protest, having been educated in the Sixties. They will refuse to be placated, or defined, Saga-style, as anxious people hoarding a nest-egg and searching out the sensible option.

Labour needs to confront this powerful group of people before it is seen to be treating them as a problem. The over-fifties will redefine politics in Britain, because, for the first time since the Second World War, old people aren't pathetically grateful just to be alive and collecting a pension. Passing legislation forbidding discrimination on the grounds of age was only the first step: now Patricia Hewitt needs to harness the untapped frustration of a group that's been patronised for too long.

Team loyalty

The farce at the Football Association gets better by the day - goodness knows how many middle-aged men the gorgeous Faria Alam dallied with! Apparently she's now known as The Real FA Trophy. I have this image of Faria sitting at a dreary FA function (although even this term takes on another Frankie Howerd-style double entendre) with Mr Palios stroking her thigh on one side while Sven whispers twaddle in her ear on the other.

As Nancy Dell'Olio, Victoria Beckham and Wayne Rooney's fiancée have all discovered, in the world of professional football the notion of fidelity in a long-term relationship is seen as a optional extra. It proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the men running our national game are a disgrace, and if it were a board of 12 middle-aged women (now that's a fantasy!) they would have resigned en masse weeks ago.

¿ At the National Theatre to see the excellent A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, I noticed plenty of people under 20 in the audience. The National's core audience has been intelligent, committed, middle-class and middle-aged, and hooray to them for their loyalty, but the Travelex summer season of cheap seats (£10 and £25), now in its second year, is really paying off. The foyer is buzzing: proof that once you've hooked a new audience, it will return.

And at the Proms last week, the wonderful Czech Philharmonic Chorus of Brno sang Janacek to a packed hall (audiences are running at 80 per cent plus this season) - more proof that culture doesn't have to be dumbed down to be accessible; just cheap.