Janet Street-Porter: Our ageist attitudes have got to change

The next generation of the old are not can't-do drips but will-do enthusiasts
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The Independent Online

Women realise the minute they've got old - it's the first time you enter a room full of men and absolutely no one looks at you. It's as if you've become invisible. It doesn't matter what you're wearing, you are literally a non-person. Of course, some people, like Germaine Greer, have said reaching old age is truly liberating, and having cast aside the toil and stress of trying to make yourself sexually attractive to anything with a pulse, you can now get on with really enjoying yourself.

But it's not that simple - from the moment my generation could read a price tag, gaze in a shop window or flip through the pages of a magazine, we were bombarded with images of young, thin, glamorous women. At work, there's always a subtle dress code, just as there is wherever you go to play. And because we've been brainwashed for decades, we now just think that as you get older, you not only start to look a bit less interesting and attractive, but you also are less useful about the place.

Of course, no one wants to admit they ever treat older people differently - but the fact is, we do. In the first national survey of age-related prejudice, which was discussed at the British Association for the Advancement of Science this week, it is clear that perceptions of age are relative. Older women think youth lasts until you're 57, whereas 24-year-old men think you're elderly at 55.

When you consider that within 35 years around 40 per cent of the population is going to be over 60, it's obvious that current attitudes to ageing will change drastically. We are entering a golden age for people of my generation, the baby boomers born directly after the Second World War. Just as we were the first teenagers, the first generation that became a discrete group of consumers, the first generation to develop its own music, art, writing and fashion, so we will redefine old age. That is why even though I've become an invisible woman, I am optimistic about the next decade.

I write this column on a boat sailing around the Western Isles of Scotland. The average age of the people on board is 65, but what a varied bunch they are. There are the self-made rich, those who have carefully saved for years, pensioners and professors, doctors and bomb-disposal experts who like painting watercolours. They have absolutely nothing in common except a passion about the outdoors, a love of walking and a curiosity about the world.

Those are the characteristics which will define the next generation of the old - they are not can't-do drips but will-do enthusiasts. My parents' generation was mired in the past. The war had fractured relationships and caused immense suffering. They seemed to me to harp on endlessly about some golden era that no longer existed, instead of eagerly anticipating the future. And who can blame them? With better education, more spending money and wider horizons, my generation became extremely self-focused.

But one of the problems Britain's first teenagers now have to face is the curse of defining youth as the touchstone for so much of our culture. Forty years on, we need to reset the agenda, just as we did back in the 1960s. The survey investigating attitudes to old age found 29 per cent of everyone questioned had suffered discrimination because of their age, more than for racism or sexism.

Of course, it's not just the old. Young people are constantly picked on, and lumped together as if they're all drunks, yobs and trainee contenders for an Asbo. After you're 55, though, discrimination gets worse, with 54 per cent of people aged over 65 believing employers would not like older people working for them.

And here lies the heart of the problem. Age discrimination is a subtle evil, and we are all guilty of it without really being aware of it. According to the survey, 90 per cent of us think old people should be cherished, and 60 per cent of us think the elderly enrich our cultural life.

Oh really? If that is the case, how come we don't actually take the time and trouble to know any of these fabulous National Treasures? Half those under 24 surveyed didn't know anyone over 70, and vice versa. If old people are so supersonic, how come the country is full of homes where ageing relatives have been parked out of sight? When I go on a beach in Estonia, Italy or Greece, I see an extended family sitting down to a picnic, grannies and babies. In Britain, this is not the norm. Elderly parents or relatives are people you visit in tightly controlled situations, where you're running the rules of engagement.

So we have a tendency, as the professor who conducted the survey acidly remarked, to see the old as "doddery but dear" and the young as "clever but callous". A sweeping generalisation, but with more than a grain of truth. Our government remains implacably opposed to promoting the benefits of working through your sixties. They can trumpet the new rules being brought in next year giving workers the right to request to work past the statutory retirement age. But employers still have the right to turn down these requests. And it's not as if the DTI has dreamt up this initiative; it's only being introduced due to an EU Employment Directive.

Recently, the Institute for Public Policy Research suggested raising the retirement age to 67. Certainly, having different ages for men and women is ridiculous. I can see why some people, having worked hard all their lives, would like a fixed age at which they can claim a pension. But many people are being denied the right to work when they want to, add to their pensions and improve their quality of life. In other words, to be self-sufficient. But if most people believe that bosses think older people are bad for their company's image, then using anti-discrimination legislation to protect older workers is going to be extremely difficult. It will be easy for clever executives to work around it.

The over-fifties are the most undervalued group of workers in the country. They are well-educated, healthy, active and a bonus to any organisation. They have people skills as well as a lifetime spent managing budgets and getting things done. We all know plenty of people over 50 who can't get a job because employers will always choose someone younger, cheaper and easier to dispose of when the going gets tough.

Every now and then, we'll read about a branch of B&Q, Sainsbury or Tesco which has taken the bold step of actually employing staff over 60. In a decade, this will be the norm. There will be more part-time working, and many will work online from home. Then, no one will be able to see the wrinkles on your face or your sagging backside, because thankfully, in the e-economy, looks and age are unimportant.

In the meantime, compulsory retirement ages should be scrapped, and hanging on to them for so long is shameful, denying those who can contribute the most to Britain their human rights.