They'll Still Swing When They're 84

By Wallace, Paul | New Statesman (1996), November 29, 1999 | Go to article overview

They'll Still Swing When They're 84


Wallace, Paul, New Statesman (1996)


Paul Wallace predicts that the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll generation will defy conventional wisdom that old age equals conservatism

A long with a growing band of fortysomething mothers, Cherie Blair has shattered a stereotype about the age when you have a baby. [But our image of what society will be like as it gets older remains anchored in a set of largely unflattering stereotypes about middle and old age.

A common conception of an ageing population takes its cue from Shakespeare's unforgiving caricatures of middle and old age in the "seven ages" speech of As You Like It (written in his thirties). Instead of a society full of ardent lovers "sighing like a furnace" and young soldiers "sudden and quick in quarrel", we will become one packed with overweight middle-aged judges "full of wise saws and modern instances" and doddery old fools reliving a second childhood.

Rather than this conventional "seven ages" approach - which is in any case outdated now that Barbie dolls are discarded at five and Americans reject the label of teenager as soon as they're 16, all to the great alarm of Disney and toy company executives-we should consider more promising, life-affirming alternatives. It is familiar ground that we have formed our basic outlook on life by our early thirties, and that, thereafter, we change relatively little. The eagerness with which advertisers still target the declining number of 18-34 year olds suggests here's something in the theory: they know that this is when brand loyalties are forged. As John Vincent, a sociologist at Exeter University and author of Politics, Power and Old Age, says, "opinions you form in youth are very powerful, they stay with you for the rest of your life". This applies to political opinions as much as to anything else. It is commonly assumed that, as people get older, they become more conservative (small c and large C). And it has bee n true hitherto that older citizens are more likely to vote Tory.

But that may be a reflection of their membership of particular generation, rather than a sign of their age. The burgeoning number of pensioners after 2010 - whose potential demands for pensions and healthcare so alarm finance ministers - will be members of the big baby-boom generation, born between 1946 and the mid-1960s. They may well turn out not to be fogeyish tradition alists but, albeit in more muted form, supporters of the values they acquired in their youth, clinging to permissive beliefs and secular attitudes.

If subsequent generations - such as Generation X born in the late 1960s and 1970s, after the baby boomers - swing to the right, we could end up with permissive grannies being challenged by more sober-minded youth. Edina and Patsy of Ab Fab will be grey-haired, but they will remain as incorrigibly irresponsible as they were in middle age. Meanwhile, Saffy will be drumming Victorian values into her own children.

There is already some evidence that supports the Ab Fab conceit of a generation gap turned on its head. A recent comparison of people born in 1970 with those born in 1958 showed that three-quarters of the GenXers, born in 1970, agreed that marriage is for life, against only three-fifths of the baby boomers, born in 1958. …

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