Watching the street protests against raising the retirement age in France this week, I’ve felt oddly torn. All those students and workers look so glamorous in their intensity, so stylishly 1968-and-manning-the-barricades.
As doomsayers in Britain increasingly predict wars between the generations, it’s hard to imagine young people here standing up for their elders in the way of the young Frenchman on the news who claimed to be marching for the right of older people to do nothing: ‘There is a time when you work,’ he explained, ‘and a time when you rest.’ The British fantasy of French culture – food, wine, sex, a bit of philosophy and literature – does of course make the idea of French ‘rest’ seem extremely enticing.
Perhaps, I started to think, all those books coming out of the United States about an emerging stage of life between 50 and 80 – of new kinds of work, wisdom, productivity and spiritual and emotional reward – derive from a peculiarly American way of looking at the world, in which work is the ultimate good? Perhaps the attempt to construct a new life phase, of what we might call ‘wise work’, derives from a puritan work ethic/capitalist misapprehension that identity only really comes from employment?
In America, and, latterly, Britain, there is a developing narrative of the old as ‘greedy geezers’, unaffordable with their massive health and pension bills, needing to get back to work – except of course that they’re obsolete, opinionated, inflexible and haven’t got a clue about anything that’s going on.
This unattractive generational prejudice stems in part from an odd assumption that work is our highest calling. Not being able to put down your BlackBerry is a badge of pride; an empty diary is near-death. Older people can only have validity if they find a new way of being busy.
Unfortunately for the French, their alternative social contract looks increasingly rigid and unsustainable. You can’t have a thriving global economy in which lots of perfectly competent people do nothing except buy cheese and discuss existentialism simply because they happen to have reached a particular age.
In the end, of course, everyone is a little bit right: the French in acknowledging that work as currently organised is often rather thin and mean and reductive and anti-culture; and the Americans in looking for work at a later stage of life that would be none of these things, but would bring a deeper satisfaction and sense of contribution to the future. Their great insight is that longevity isn’t simply a matter of years tacked on at the end, but means that we are becoming a different kind of human than any that has existed before, with a need for a different rhythm of life and a new sense of life stages.
Having been writing about older people for a while now, it seems to me that quite often the best way to think about the ageing population is not to think about it at all. We want people to work longer? Then we need to think about work throughout the life course. People only want to stop work if what they do is demeaning, exhausting and undermining. There’s no inherent reason why it should be. Why not aim for rewarding and satisfying and creative work for everyone, with time off when it makes sense, rather than all at the end? Now that would be something worth taking to the streets for.