Watch out: grey power is taking over

It seems that once a man reaches the age of 68, his cop-kicking days should be over

Some people like to belt out "Wichita Lineman" at the slightest excuse while others prefer the subtleties of "Rhinestone Cowboy", but it is a dull dog indeed who has never enjoyed the sharp, simple pleasure of singing a Glen Campbell song out loud. Those of us who have knocked around a bit know, like Campbell, that there's a load of compromisin' on the road to our horizon and have discovered that nice guys tend to get washed away like snow in the rain. We may not wear rhinestones or a stetson but the truths and heartbreak contained in those songs are universal.

For fans, the only surprising aspect of this week's news about Campbell was that it was reported at all. Apparently our man smashed his car up, wandered off unsteadily into the night, was arrested and taken (singing "Rhinestone Cowboy", rather touchingly) to the police station where - attaboy - he kneed a sergeant in the thigh. There is nothing particularly startling there - at least for a man whose past includes several coke busts, four marriages (including one to a 15-year-old), an accusation of attempted murder, a round of golf with the Duke of Edinburgh and an ominous late-flowering enthusiasm for the ways of the Lord.

It turns out that what interested newspapers about the story was the age of the accused. So far as the press is concerned, it seems that once a man reaches the age of 68, his cop kicking days should be over.

We seem to be in a bit of a muddle with our attitudes towards senior citizens, caught between the old pipes-and-slippers view and an awareness that things have changed over the past decade or so.

This week another stroppy oldster, Tony Booth, the Prime Minister's father-in-law, has been arguing, oddly, that pensioners are taken for granted in this country. Because our treatment of the old is " beneath contempt" he is moving to Ireland. There, he says, " they love the young and respect the old" whereas in Britain, "the attitude seems to be 'Why don't you all do us a favour and snuff it'".

Booth may well be right that pensions have been allowed to lag behind the cost of living but the broader questions of respect towards the elderly are debatable. Far from being marginalised, those who were once thought to be past their prime now stand proudly centre stage. Business types gravely discuss the grey pound. Pensioner stories - drunken country singers, have-a-go grannies, Viagra-charged octogenarians - dominate the inside pages.

Twenty years ago, Saga holidays were the stuff of joke routines by pub comedians. Now, with the announcement that the company is for sale, we discover that the firm is one of the great entrepreneurial success stories of recent times. Such is the economic power of the over-50s that Saga now employs 3,000 people, has a turnover of £350m and a profit line that is currently growing at 30 per cent a year.

In its magazine, whose circulation is an astonishing 1.2 million, celebrities who once would have been bashful about moving beyond middle age - Mick Jagger, Tony Blair, Helen Mirren, Sting - have been happy to present themselves as oldie role models. So cool has maturity become that it seems only a matter of time before Grecian 2000 introduces grey into its hair-dye range.

Suddenly it seems positively desirable to be over the hill. Holidays are cheaper, insurance rates more sensible. Small areas of stress, connected to having to look after a pet for example, are a thing of the past. Thanks to Saga's pet insurance scheme, you could benefit to the tune of £750 if your pet happened catch an intruder in your house. Not only are vet fees covered but so is pet physiotherapy, herbal remedies and homoeopathy.

All this is good news for Saga and probably a sign of society growing up. There are still pockets of ageism - among employers, sit-com writers and book publishers - but the rest of us have realised that there is a busy grey area between full activity and social redundancy, that older citizens go on working, playing, spending money and kicking policemen as long as they are able.

In fact, a younger enragé of the Booth school might point out that, far from taking the old for granted, we pay rather too much attention to them and not enough to the young. For the first time, there are now more people in Britain over 60 than there are under 16, a situation which, with the declining birth rate, will get progressively worse. A recent study of demographic trends in Europe and America, conducted at the University of Michigan, has concluded that, by 2050, the median age of the European population will be 52, while that of America will be 35.

Not that the people now gambolling towards old age will worry too much about that. Like Noel Coward's Mrs Wentworth Brewster, they have discovered, in the nick of time, that life is for living.