The Age of No Retirement

The Age of No Retirement is part of a growing movement that is looking to change the way we think about life, work and ageing. At its latest event, Mark Sinclair discovers how rethinking the language we use to talk about older people is a key first step

On June 4 1976, the Sex Pistols played Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, a gig famously attended by several young fans who would each go on to form influential bands themselves. The performance was name-checked by a member of the audience at The Age of No Retirement? conference in the city last month, during a talk from Gransnet editor, Gigi Eligoloff. Its relevance, the speaker pointed out, was that anyone who’d attended that gig in their mid-20s would, by now, more than likely be retired. In society’s eyes, the generation that had witnessed the noise and energy of punk first-hand were now deemed to be winding down. The observation reinforced the idea that while terms such as ‘retirement’ are increasingly being redefined, our understanding of ageing is being rethought, too. Gathered in Manchester, TAONR had brought together many of the people responsible for taking this new thinking forward. “You don’t want Gracie Fields,” the man appealed to the audience. “You don’t want Vera Lynn. You want Gransnet.”

Age and ageing have meant different things to every generation. When the 20 year-old Johnny Rotten’s cry of “no future” came to Manchester in the mid-70s, a construction boom was taking place in the US as a whole industry emerged to cater for retirees relocating to Florida. (A decade later the mandatory retirement age was abolished in the US – much earlier than in the UK.) Go back further and our perception of age, our understanding of what we expect from others and what’s expected of us at particular points in our lives, alters even more.

Eligoloff, whose website is a grandparent-focused spin-off from Mumsnet with over 100,000 regular users a month, claimed that a major difference that distinguishes today’s older generation from previous ones is that they experienced being teenagers, a term that only entered mass usage in the mid-1940s (via the US) to describe a new type of young consumer. Eligoloff, who is 49, suggested that not only had people of her grandmother’s generation been thought of as old at 40, but that they had stepped comfortably into this role. In 2015, things could not be more different with many people in their 50s, 60s and 70s dismissing the idea that they are ‘old’ at all and actively resisting the definition. This despite the dominant attitudes of wider society – perpetuated by the media, advertising, fashion and entertainment industries, even employers and the government – telling them otherwise.

Posters created for the second Age of No Retirement? in Manchester
Posters created for the second Age of No Retirement? in Manchester

Yet there’s a sense that we might finally be moving towards a time where talk of ageing isn’t just more visible or acceptable, but seen as vital to the collective health of our society as a whole, particularly when it is becoming one that is living and working together for longer. The range of topics discussed at TAONR, appropriately staged within the People’s History Museum, a building dedicated to activism, would certainly suggest so. Surrounded by stories of political causes and social movements it wasn’t impossible to imagine some of the idealism rubbing off. While the aims of TAONR are certainly far reaching, centering on new ways of thinking about work and ideas that will, say the organisers, help us rebalance society along more age-neutral and age-positive lines, it’s a pragmatic event and has workable results in its sights.

TAONR was founded by Georgina Lee of Commonland, a research-led studio that works collaboratively with customers and organisations on co-authored projects, and Jonathan Collie of Trading Times, a service that connects people over 50 with flexible working opportunities. They see the new venture as part of what they call “a movement of change towards a society without age boundaries, prejudices, stereotypes and exclusion. A society in which we all want to live.” The event is structured as a series of informal talks and participatory workshops in which various proposals are discussed and turned into prototype ideas. These are then pinned up on the walls for everyone to see during the event and eventually exhibited and published, so that businesses, brands, designers and institutions can take the ideas and concepts forward into the real world.

After the first TAONR event last year at the OXO Bargehouse in London, the organisers produced six clear action areas, from ending ‘the generational divide’ to ‘creating and sharing new stories’, and identified 27 separate proposals. The second installment in Manchester, which brought in representatives from Barclays and the Department for Work and Pensions, the Design Council, Spring Chicken and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, ended up with an equally impressive list.

TAONR featured talks and workshops at the People’s History Museum
TAONR featured talks and workshops at the People’s History Museum

Rethinking the language we use when talking about older people is one of TAONR’s key concerns. From the ubiquitous use of ‘grey’ or ‘silver’ as a prefix (the ‘silver surfers’ label ascribed to online users is perhaps the worst offender), through to the negative associations of frailty and decline that come loaded in the term ‘elderly’, words are integral to most of the issues that TAONR is tackling. Indeed, many of the speakers at the conference made the point that without significant shifts in the way we use language, wider change cannot begin to happen. Or, rather, change happens when we start to use language differently – and this applies equally to visual language as much as to the written word.

When the language employed to refer to older people is used without thought, whole sections of the population are placed into neat catch-alls which, while slipping easily into newspaper headlines, go a long way to alienate the very people being written about. Stefano Hatfield, who spoke about his co-founded initiative High50, lay the blame squarely with the media and advertising industry’s obsession with youth and lack of engagement with people over 50 – a culture sustained in part by image libraries that, he claimed, frequently put this age group in the same bracket as 75 year-olds. We simply don’t treat people below the age of 50 in the same way.

But change is happening and our ageing population is, in certain areas at least, starting to get what it wants: recognition. Hatfield was adamant that it just doesn’t make economic sense to think otherwise: “The seismic nature of the shift in the demographics and the economics that lie behind it will ensure that there will be a host of new brands and new products that would have never have been thought possible, let alone necessary, a decade ago.”

At the same time, the 50-plus generation has become much more entrepreneurial, Hatfield noted, to the point that start-ups and innovation are rife as people move into a time of life when they more commonly distance themselves from traditional models of work. While more needs to be done in conveying the benefits of being online to the oldest groups in society, Gransnet’s success shows that many older people are also making the most of connectivity. Now that companies like Barclays (one of the sponsors of TAONR) are investing in things such as their Digital Eagles initiative, which offers online guidance to any of their customers who require it, other big high street names are likely to follow suit. Even the name – no ‘silver’ or ‘senior’ here – suggests that Barclays is going about this project without condescension.

Last year’s TAONR saw a range of proposals put forward to tackle the language problem. These ranged from advocating the use of plain, clear words instead of employing derogatory or patronising terms – “an older person is an older person, period,” runs the text in the event’s newspaper. Two industry-specific media guides were also proposed; one for news organisations and media channels, another for corporations, brands and schools and “any other major influencers who have the power to help overcome ageism and ageist stereotypes across the UK”. (TAONR is currently working with the DWP on the former, post-election shake-ups permitting.) Another proposal was to work towards rethinking how events, services and brands which perpetuate the alienation of older people can be renamed and remade. In 2009, Age Concern and Help the Aged were brought together and emerged as the rebranded Age UK a year later. Change is not impossible: small steps, symbolised in the transition from ‘aged’ to ‘age’, are already being made.

“We need to reclaim a new language to show that ageing is an opportunity and a challenge that affects us all,” a spokesperson for the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation writes in the TAONR newspaper. “We need to challenge discrimination and prejudice wherever it appears. ‘Older people’ are not ‘other’. They are us and what we too will become. We need to engage together to fulfil all of our potential.” Going forward, what TAONR now needs is help in putting a range of ideas into action. As Lee told the assembled crowd in Manchester, the seeds of a movement had been sown; it was time to “step forward into creating a new future”. Visit TAONR’s site to see how you can help shape it.

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