Tom Sutcliffe: An age-old problem that affects us all

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The Independent Online

So what's it to be then? A "martini and a medal", Martin Amis's deliberately provocative shorthand for street corner euthanasia booths, or "flexible working" until we drop in the traces? Are Britain's old people a demographic time-bomb, or are they a resource that we can't afford to waste (or, more bluntly, just can't afford unless they chip in themselves)?

On the face of it, press coverage of the novelist's remarks in a weekend interview and a call from the Equality and Human Rights Commission to scrap the national retirement age seemed to offer utterly incompatible views of the same subject. Either old people are a social nuisance to be cleared away or they are socially vulnerable and in need of further protection, but not both surely? In fact, though, Amis and the EHRC were like the blind men in the old fable attempting to describe an elephant by touch alone. One, at its tail, insists that it's thin and fibrous. The other, at its trunk, is confident that it is thick, muscular and snakelike. And, in this case, it was the elephant in the room.

Both contributions to the national conversation attempted to draw our attention to the fact that social arrangements and attitudes we've inherited won't fit the future that we're going to pass on to the next generation. Amis chose to do it by means of satirical exaggeration, unwisely forgetting that a lot of people are so idiotically literal-minded that they would feel obliged to issue statements condemning his cold-heartedness. (Had these people been around when Jonathan Swift published "A Modest Proposal" there would have been scandalised headlines reading "Mad Irish Vicar Wants to Roast Your Baby").

The EHRC avoided anything similar by sticking to the language of cost-benefit analysis and economic stimulus. But both were addressing the fact that the old expectations of what happens to you at the end of your life could no longer be relied upon. The old will not simply be genially ignored by the young while they get on in the full vigour of their life – because we're simply too expensive – and we can no longer look forward to the long weekend of full retirement in quite the same way.

I write "we" because I think of myself now as on the wrong side of this particular social watershed (and, yes, if there is a watershed there is a "wrong" side to be). But the truth is that "we" and "them" doesn't really make any sense in regard to this particular identifier. And in all the talk of competing interests and "civil war" (Amis again) that sometimes gets forgotten.

Age, unlike wealth or class or colour, is not one of those social demarcations into which one is born and within which one may well permanently remain. You can live all your life poor or rich – and thus propose radical measures for rich or poor (tick relevant box) without ever fearing that you may have to endure them yourself. But we've all been young and will all, barring accidents, get old.

More than that, at any given time most of us have an emotional investment in someone on the other side of this conceptual Berlin Wall. EHRC points out how many 70-year-olds still support their children. Amis, I dare say, thinks of his young daughters when he frets about the old (himself too, let's remember) hogging the light.

His very raising of the issue (on their behalf effectively) is a clue as to why it will never come to war. Whatever social arrangements we make to cope with changing life-expectancies, and however much talk there is about the division between "young" and "old" the border-line between the camps is going to be very hard to find. It's a real problem, but we're all in it together.

It's in the eyes (and the cleavage)

An American online dating site recently performed an intriguing analysis of the connection between the pictures its users posted to represent themselves and the numbers of responses they got. The findings were pretty much as you'd expect when it came to crude dividers – such as whether people smiled or not. Women smiled twice as much as men did and adopted what the analyst described as a "flirty-face" four times as often.

What was a little surprising was that while smiling and flirted paid-off well for female clients (particularly if they were making direct eye contact with the camera) the men were far more effective if they didn't smile and were looking off screen at something else.

So men, it seems, want the promise of friendly availability while women really are intrigued by someone whose attention is going to have to be secured first. As long as it doesn't have to be secured from another woman; men who did the flirty-face while not making eye contact performed worst of all. Serious and a bit enigmatic seems to do the trick. And, if you've got 'em flaunt 'em. A display of cleavage or ripped abs, universally derided as cheesily vulgar, worked.

Going deeper into the figures, the analysis (you can see it on discovered that the pictures most likely to lead to what are usually called "genuine" replies, involved the subject "doing something interesting" or "with an animal". Presumably there must be a kind of "perfect storm" dating site picture, involving a flirty-faced person with not many clothes on doing something interesting with an animal ... though it's easy to see how it could all go horribly wrong.

Camilla worthy of centre stage on the Street

My heart leapt momentarily on receiving a press release headlined "HRH The Duchess of Cornwall Visits Coronation Street". What with Boris Johnson lumbering onto the Queen Vic set recently (and "lumber" is the only appropriate word for his sturdily ligneous performance) I briefly thought this might be part of some kind of hearts-and-minds operation to pave the way for Queen Camilla.

Sadly it turns out that the Duchess is only going to be in the wings, "observing a scene being filmed in The Rovers Return interior". She may be a little disappointed herself that this is the case, since the press release also claims that "Her Royal Highness follows the programme whenever she can" – and there could be no greater apotheosis of Corrie fandom than to make a cameo appearance in the show. Prince Charles did it in 2000, doing a meet-and-greet with Councillor Audrey Roberts in a mocked-up news clip shown on the 40th anniversary.

With the programme's Golden Jubilee approaching in December this year the makers of the programme are presumably holding out for a sitting monarch rather than a mere consort. There were rumours to that effect last year and I do hope they turn out to be true – since there are rich comic possibilities in the collision between royal protocol and the Street's scrambling social climbers. As for Camilla – she should start campaigning for this high honour to be conferred on her in 2020.