Last week I entered my seventh decade. And for those who still don’t understand when decades begin this means I had my 60th birthday, not my 59th which is how those who think that 2010 is the start of a new decade would have it. I have completed my three score years and am looking forward to at least the additional ten that the bible indicated was likely. For what it’s worth my father recently completed his four score years and ten.
60 is an interesting age as it is the first time since one reached the age of majority that society has deemed that one should receive additional privileges. I am now entitled to the famous free bus pass which theoretically would allow me to tour the country from John O’Groats to Land's End and back again at no cost. I can go to the local public baths and swim for free. This winter I will receive an allowance towards the cost of fuel. No doubt all of these privileges will be taken away by our new Chancellor in a rash of means testing. I write this the day before his emergency budget.
Being born in 1950 means that I am firmly in the generation known as baby boomers. The baby boomers are now aged between 45 and 65 and have dominated society at every stage through our lives, not always with the most positive effect. As we approached our maturity we led revolutions in social behaviour and swam in an idealism that held out hope for the future. We rebelled against the Vietnam War and other excesses of what we saw as the Establishment.
But as we matured we gradually sold out and bought into the consumerism that flourished with our numbers. We consumed at a level that we can now see is not sustainable. We also, because of our great numbers, dominate ownership of property and other assets. The stock exchange responds to demographic movement. As population grows so investments are made in equities. But as the population ages it will withdraw investment from these assets so the long term outlook for equities must be poor in the markets of the developed West that have this problem.
Tackling intergenerational imbalances should be a policy priority for the government if the UK is to preserve financial stability for future generations, according to Conservative MP David Willetts, the new Science Minister in the coalition government.
In his excellent book, The Pinch, he accuses the baby boomer generation of robbing their children of a sustainable financial future. He argues that government borrowing must be rapidly reduced if subsequent generations are to have any hope of economic security. The huge levels of government debt are a tax on future generations.
He recognises that not all baby boomers have behaved selfishly or irresponsibly, but his own research demonstrated huge disparities in wealth. His estimations of distribution of assets by age group show the 45 to 65-year-old age group, the baby boomers, owns £3.5 trillion compared to £0.9 trillion for the under 45s and £2.3 trillion for the over 65s. His main message, supported by a weight of evidence and insight, can be summed up by the advice of the American bumper sticker: “Be nice to your kids – they will choose your nursing home.” His argument is that this message is very shrewd.
But turning back to my 7th decade what are the challenges? Well, consider the following examples of what some people have achieved after their 60th birthday.
· At age 60 Playwright George Bernard Shaw completed “Heartbreak House", regarded
by some as his masterpiece.
· Italian sculptor, painter, playwright, draftsman and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini
developed St Peter’s colonnade in the Vatican in his 60’s.
· Mahatma Gandhi was 61 when he and his followers marched 240 miles in 24 days to make their own salt from the sea in defiance of British colonial laws and taxes.
· In 1885, at the age of 62 Louis Pasteur gave the first injection against rabies.
· The author, Frank McCourt, who wrote the bestseller "Angela's Ashes" only took up
writing in his 60’s.
· Roy Thomson was born in 1894. In 1957, at the age of 63, he launched a successful bid for the commercial television franchise for Central Scotland, named Scottish Television, which he was to describe as a "licence to print money". In 1959 he purchased the Kemsley group of newspapers, the largest in Britain, which included The Sunday Times. Over the years, he expanded his media empire to include more than 200 newspapers in Canada, the US, and the UK. His Thomson Organisation became a multinational corporation, with interests in publishing, printing, television, and travel. In 1966, Thomson bought The Times newspaper from members of the Astor family. In the 1970s, when he was in his late 70’s, Thomson joined with J. Paul Getty in a consortium that successfully explored for oil in the North Sea.
· In 1940, Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of Great Britain when he was 65 proving that courage is not reserved for the young. Churchill vowed, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender." He became Prime Minister for a second time in 1951 aged 76.
· In 1966 Lillian Carter, President Carter's mother, aged 68 joined the Peace Corps and spent the next two years working as a nurse near Bombay, India.
· Benjamin Franklin was 70 when he helped draft the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and later that year was dispatched to France as the United States first ambassador. In 1789, when he was 83 he added to a long list of inventions with something I am grateful for, bifocal glasses.
- When she was 70 French actress Sarah Bernhardt had a leg amputated but refused to abandon the stage.
· Ronald Reagan became President of the United States at 70.
· In 1981 living in Los Angeles I was fortunate to see the great Rex Harrison, then aged 73, play Professor Higgins during a successful 11-month tour of the US in "My Fair Lady”. Cathleen Nesbitt who was then 92 played his mother.
· In 1942, when he was 76, H. G. Wells completed his doctoral dissertation, earning a D.Sc. from London University. He had dropped out of school at 14.
· Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany's greatest literary figure, completed “Faust” in
· At age 90 Pablo Picasso was still at work as a painter.
· At 97 in 1976, Sir Robert Mayer toured the U.S. with the London Schools Symphony
Orchestra, which he had founded 25 years earlier as a stripling of 72.
In light of all these accomplishments, and in a world where oldies now outnumber teenagers, perhaps we need to change our perspective. Perhaps life begins at 60.