A few months ago, I found myself thinking about Paul McCartney. The reason was obvious enough: I had just turned 64, and his classic number When I’m Sixty-Four had been ricocheting around my brain for far too long.
You’re probably too young to remember the words: ‘When I get older, losing my hair/Many years from now/Will you still be sending me a valentine/ Birthday greetings? Bottle of wine?’
McCartney was only 16 years old when he wrote that – and I imagine the prospect of reaching the grand old age of 64 seemed unimaginably distant. (He is now 70, for goodness sake, which makes me feel just a little bit better.)
When you reach 60, everyone delights in telling you that it is the new 40; by which they mean that it is not really old at all, which of course it isn’t.
So why, if in newspeak I’m barely in my mid-40s, did I decide to step down from my regular presenting duties at the BBC at the end of last year? I could try to persuade you that it was in order to create an opportunity for a younger person to have a go – after all, the longer we oldies carry on working, the harder it is for our younger colleagues to make their way up the career ladder.
It would be tosh, of course. But there is a serious point – I can’t be the only oldie who came to feel the creeping danger of going stale by sticking in the same job for too long. In my younger days, I was advised by an old lag to switch jobs every two years, always being sure to get a pay rise when I started afresh. I ignored the advice, and have worked for only three employers (Reuters, The Observer and the BBC) in more than 40 years as a journalist.
As final-salary pension schemes go the way of the dodo, and the state pension starts to kick in later and later, of course we are all going to work longer. So please, don’t make the mistake of thinking I’ve retired. Dear me, no. I have ‘stood down’ while I start a ‘new chapter’ in my professional life.
A fantasy world
When I was in Japan a few years ago, I discovered that its demographic imbalance was so profound that it could, literally, be described as a ‘dying nation’. There are less than half the number of births then there were 60 years ago, and the current birth rate is more than a third below replacement level. Current life expectancy is higher than anywhere else in the world, but the working-age population is decreasing sharply. Too many old people living too long; too few young people to generate the income to pay for their grandparents’ care. Not good at all.
So why are the Japanese not having more babies? I suggested at the time, rashly, that perhaps Japanese women are increasingly reluctant to marry because they think Japanese men are unable to adapt to the needs of a new, more flexible society. Instead their menfolk have retreated into a fantasy world of comics,video games and animated pornography where they feel less threatened. Unsurprisingly, the theory won me few friends among the Japanese (male) online community.
I have warned my children that they should start preparing to live forever. Their genetic inheritance looks ominous: my father is still going strong at 94, and his mother made it to the age of 98. My wife’s mother did even better, and thoroughly enjoyed her 100th birthday party; her mother had made it to 97.
My mother has just died, a relative stripling at not quite 92. Towards the end, she would often ask us to remind her how old she was. ‘Ninety-one?’ Her eyes would open wide in astonishment. ‘Incredible. No one in my family lives that long.’
I feel no spirit of competition as I enter what I like to think of as late middle age. I intend to enjoy life rather than endure it. So every evening I raise my wine glass (it’s meant to be good for the heart, apparently) to the late playwright, novelist and barrister John Mortimer, whose philosophy of life I have enthusiastically made my own. ‘There is no pleasure worth forgoing just for an extra three years in the geriatric ward.’