Constantly working and refusing to slow down – David Attenborough is the poster boy for the 'new old'

As Attenborough eschews the prospect of his own boredom, he is also maintaining the status quo. This is the problem with the never-olds: they don’t retire, they don’t move aside, leaving others to spend literally a lifetime awaiting their demise

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The Independent Online

The BBC unveiling a new series of Blue Planet presented by 90-year-old David Attenborough is slightly alarming for every 30 or 40-something stumbling wearily into a new working week. Faced with the thought of Attenborough, almost 50 years our senior, girding his loins to narrate a seven-part flagship show, it feels fatuous for us, the relatively young, to sit about dreaming of retirement.

Attenborough may well be a leading name in the mapping of new species, but I observe him and his ilk with equal curiosity. Here is the “new old” in its full majesty: Attenborough is part of the fulfilled, stimulated and doing very nicely veteran class, which includes Mick Jagger, Jane Fonda, Yoko Ono and of course Her Majesty the Queen.

A new benchmark in stubborn workplace longevity is being set. Here are workers who love to work and quite simply, using loose HR department terms, “refuse to sod off”. 

No, it’s not working down a pit. Or even in a call centre. No one with a job which is tedious, poorly paid, backbreaking and thankless is hankering to work till their final breath.

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“New old” is very much the territory of the treasured and cossetted. But still, although the Blue Planet gig may seem cushy, the reality of it would test the patience of those years younger.

The modern media world is exasperating and hectic. Attenborough, aged 90, has signed up for day upon day in sterile recording booths laying down, redoing and rejigging voiceovers of whale calves being obliterated by killer whales. He is green-lighting endless arduous phone interviews for trashy TV guides by young sprat writers, for whom their earliest historical memory is Scooch representing Britain at Eurovision. He will be tormented with daily talk of social media outreach and his need to cut through to a diverse demographic.

There will be endless catch-ups with a Siobhan Sharpe type from the BBC comedy W1A who will float ideas of photo shoots with Attenborough dressed as a hairy-chested hoff crab for the cover of the Radio Times.

He could give it all up tomorrow – but he chooses not. And that’s exciting, inspiring and frightening in equal measure.

There is excitement in the fact that old age does not need to mean our twilight era. It need not lead to a fading of output, or being left to go gently gaga. In the correct circumstances, and with the option to continue loving a job you have always loved, the looming spectre of retirement and irrelevance is thwarted.

But the flip side of this is: as Attenborough eschews the prospect of his own boredom, reduction in status and monetary downturn, he is also very much maintaining the status quo.

This is the problem with the never-olds. They don’t retire, they don’t move aside and alternative candidates can spend literally a lifetime awaiting their demise. He’s not giving way to, say, Chris Packham. He’s certainly not opening the door for Kate Humble or Michaela Strachan.

There will, mercifully, be no Keith Lemon doing fart jokes beside the Methane Mountains. There will be no slam poetry narration or Gary Barlow score. Blue Planet will remain frozen just like the glaciers. No underling will tamper with it too much and risk scaring him away.

Yet, it is inspiring that these old, big beasts know the value in their brand, rather than being grateful for employment. Joan Collins knows she still turns every head at a film premier at the age of 83; Mary Berry, 81, knows there is no Bake Off without her, no matter where they take that tent.

Attenborough surely knows that his avuncular presence and balm-like delivery make him appear irreplaceable. Yes, that baby elephant may be walking in the wrong direction, away from mummy, and will die alone gasping in a dust cloud – but that’s ok as Attenborough can convince us this is all part of life’s great pageant. There’s no need for me to fling a plugged-in toaster into my Sunday night bath.

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His narration style is that of a man who has witnessed so much, travelled so far, seen so many winters turn to spring, that he can assure you things tend to come out in the wash.

Of course, the disconcerting fact about “new old” is that it may simply lead, within 20 years, to retirement being phased out across all professions.

Is your workplace pension pathetic? Did they phase out your state pension when you were too busy working three jobs at the same time to notice? Have your children and their children commandeered your home and placed you in a snug granny flat (an alcove under the stairs with no natural daylight)?

Have you been warned by friends and family that retirement will lead to Alzheimer’s and, look, David Attenborough was presenting Blue Planet at 105?

The problem with the “new old” – the never-resting, the always-employed – is that there are lots of people out there who still dream, one day, of a nice sit down.