Melanie McDonagh: Celebrate long life and good living

Welcoming the growing number of pensioners

Share
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

ICT Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a qualified ...

DT Design and Technology Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are urgently for ...

Maths Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an experienc...

Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

Day In a Page

 

Naturism criminalised: Why not being able to bare all is a bummer

Simon Usborne
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on