Third Age Renaissance: Tomorrow's World Belongs to the Over-sixties

Donald NorfolkBefore very long the pendulum is going to swing. For years we’ve been foisted with a youth culture. High street stores have filled their windows with goods designed to satisfy the ‘yoof’ market, from T-shirts and jeans to ghetto-blaster radios and heavy metal records. Tabloid newspapers and TV stations have set out to amuse the young with mindless, candy-floss entertainment. In this teeny-bopper world anyone over the age of fifty has been deemed to be on the slippery, downward slope. From that age onwards they’ve found it difficult to get a job, whatever their qualifications, contacts and lifetime experience. All this is about to change, and the change will come with unexpected speed.

Primitive societies depended on young men, who had the physical strength, speed and courage to form their hunting bands and warrior armies. Among these tribes the elderly were a liability: extra mouths to feed who were little use fighting battles or foraging for food. So trials of physical endurance were introduced to weed out those who didn’t contribute to the survival of the group. In one South Sea Island old stagers were forced to climb a coconut tree. Once they’d scrambled to the top, the tree was given a vigorous shake. Those who managed to stay put were considered fit to survive; those who couldn’t, fell to the ground and met almost certain death. A similar screening process was employed in Kenya, where the feeble and long-term sick were carried a long way from their encampments and then abandoned to their fate. If they had the strength to struggle back to their homesteads they were considered worthy of a longer lease of life; if not they provided food for predatory animals.

These barbaric practices served a logical purpose in the days when communities depended on physical strength for their safety and sustenance. This rationale no longer applies, for we have replaced muscle power with horse power. Grandpa doesn’t have to join a forest hunt to bring back wild boar and deer. As long as he has a credit card and a car he can feed an entire family for a fortnight by making a single trip to the local supermarket. And when it comes to the defence of the realm, his finger on the nuclear button is every bit as effective as that of a young commando. Nowadays it doesn’t matter who’s driving the dumper truck, the work output is the same whether they’re sixteen of sixty.

When we allow ourselves to become the victims of ageist thinking, we suffer a loss of pride and self esteem. In today’s Western societies the elderly are not physically abandoned, but they’re frequently made to feel unwanted, and a needles burden on the tax paying public. This is in many ways a far crueller punishment, because it involves a prolonged process of humiliation, which leaves many old stagers feeling devalued and degraded. But the casualties of ageism are to a large extent the victims of their own defeatist thinking. They’ve allowed themselves to be brain-washed into believing that they’re passed their sell-by-date.

This defeatism can easily be overcome by studying the historical records of some of the world’s outstanding figure. At 85 Verdi composed some of his most glorious religious works, including his Ave Maria, Stabat Mater and Te Deum. At 80 Goethe completed the writing of Faust. Picasso was still painting profusely in his nineties, and at 98 Titian executed his marvellous painting of the Battle of Lepanto. By their lives, and the sheer brilliance of their work, these great artists demonstrated the cultural benefits that a civilised society can obtain from its older citizens. If ageism exists today, it’s only because the older generation allow it to exist.

As we get older we need to become more self-assertive, rather than less. If we’re to assume our rightful place in society, we must no longer sell ourselves short. Grey power is no idle promise. We have the numerical strength, the experience, the collective wealth, the leisure time and the political clout to change the world. We must no longer be idle spectators of the great pageant of life. We must write its script, direct its scenes and choreograph its outcome.  At one time the elderly were revered for their experience and wisdom. When Moses needed help to lead the Jewish people into the Promised Land he appointed an assembly of seventy elders to help him rule. Sparta was ruled by a Council of Elders, who had to be 60 years old before they were eligible for election. In all the early civilisations old age was treated with respect, as it is in China today, where elderly people are still asked ‘what is your honourable age.’

Many elderly people, as well as retaining their creativity and leadership skills, also maintain a remarkable level of physical fitness.  In his mid-sixties Borotra played tennis for France. At the same age, Sir Francis Chichester sailed single-handed around the world, and Blondin, the French acrobat turned somersaults on stilts on a tightrope! During his eightieth birthday party, Charles Atlas demonstrated his strength by tearing telephone directories, and at eighty-five George Hackenschmidt, the former world wrestling champion, demonstrated his fitness and stamina by jumping over the back of a chair. Not much sign of geriatric decline there!

It largely depends on our mental attitude. This was shown by Donald Trump, the flamboyant American entrepreneur, who suffered an enormous financial collapse during the property slump of 1990 which left him $8 billion in debt. The banks took away his airline, his yacht and some of his hotels. But throughout the crisis he maintained a positive outlook reciting to himself: ‘Stay alive to 95’. I suggest that anyone approaching that age should change the mantra to ‘Stay for more till a hundred

and four.’

Copyright Donald Norfolk 2010

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