Melanie McDonagh: Celebrate long life and good living

Welcoming the growing number of pensioners

Related Topics

For the first time in history, there are more pensioners than children in Britain. It's a close-run thing – 11.58 million of the oldies to 11.52 million under-16s – but it's a trajectory that we had better get used to.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the numbers of over-80s have doubled in 30 years to 2.7 million. And by 2020, the number of centenarians will have quadrupled. My grandmother's grandmother died at 102 in the earlier part of the last century of what her family described as senile decay: she was ahead of her time. Most of us would prefer to perish at that age in the style of the late Queen Mother, who was borne serenely towards her end on a tide of gin and Dubonnet.

One way of looking at the new demography is to lament the relative paucity of babies. But the more common reaction is to complain about the growing number of people living longer as a burden on the taxpayer.

Yet it ought to be a matter for celebration. Fewer people died last year (571,000) than in 2001 (599,000). That's good... isn't it? We've all got a stake in longevity. We shall have the pleasure of the company of our parents, our grandparents, our uncles and aunts for decades longer than they had. I quite like to have a couple of generations between me and death: it's a blessing few had a century ago when average life expectancy for men was 40. Many more children born this year will have the chance of chatting to elderly relations about what it was like to live through the Second World War.

Pensioners may or may not be repositories of wisdom, but they form the group most likely to vote. Which makes it all the more remarkable that their political power has been so drastically underplayed. If pensioners really mobilised, it is hard to think that the basic pension could remain at the present derisory £90.70.

Remarkably few older politicians actually go on to champion the constituency they are now part of. If, as the health think tank, the King's Fund, suggests, there will be a million people suffering dementia in a generation, our spending on health will have to be radically rethought to take account of the number of old people who will need residential care – or civilised provision in their own homes.

What's more, our idea of what constitutes an elderly person is changing – and will change more in the decade ahead. Many of our conceptions about age depend merely on our experiences of the generation before last. There are very few women now alive who lived through the First World War and could not marry after it because the males of their generation had been annihilated. But the template of the maiden aunt survived for more than a half century.

It is hard to feel quite the same towards pensioners if they begin to resemble Mick Jagger, 65, or Joanna Lumley, 62. Meryl Streep will be a pensioner next year but it's not what you think when you see Mamma Mia!

The 17th-century statesman Sir William Temple remarked that the reason there were no centenarians in France was that "they lived life too well to live it long". Our pensioners ought to do both.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

KS1 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Supply Teacher re...

KS2 Teaching Supply Wakefield

£140 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Primary Teachers Needed for Supply in Wakefield

£140 - £160 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1&2 Supply Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Residents of the Gravesham constituency are 10 times closer to what Peter Hain scorns as the “Westminster elite” than are those of Linlithgow and East Falkirk  

Will no one stop the march of localism?

Jonathan Meades
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam