‘Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way/The time is gone, the song is over, thought I’d something more to say.’
Pink Floyd’s album Dark Side of the Moon is, arguably, the quintessential expression of the aspirations and values of the baby boomer cohort. Escape the daily, purposeless grind, the lyrics (written by a group who were themselves baby boomers)urge; don’t sit around waiting for someone else to tell you what to do; seize the moment, act for yourself, don’t be eaten by the machine.
The first so-called baby boom occurred between 1946 and 1955, immediately following the end of the Second World War. This was the cohort of young people who, in their late teens and early 20s, began to foment the technicoloured mix of social, sexual and (in some countries) political revolution that is widely associated with the 1960s.
From their birth to old age, this group has enjoyed far greater opportunities than any other: the NHS (they are the first generation to enjoy free healthcare from cradle to grave); better education (the post-war extension of secondary and university education to a far wider swathe of the population) and so greater social mobility; employment (jobs were readily available); wealth (houses were affordable in their youth and many have done well from the property boom); technological advances, and (not least) more liberal social attitudes (decriminalisation of homosexuality, greater equality for women, the advent of the Pill, legalisation of abortion).
But now they are in or approaching retirement age, and their numbers are causing ripples of concern: can the country afford to sustain the burden of so many ageing people all at once, economically and socially? Will its health and welfare services and infrastructure be able to cope?
Last month the Mental Health Foundation published a report, Getting on… with life, that explores how well the baby boomers are prepared for old age. The report is the fruit of its Age Well Inquiry, chaired by Baroness Lola Young, which looked in particular into the mental health, wellbeing and resilience of the baby boomer cohort, what may help them deal with the challenges of ageing and what the Government should be doing to support them to maximise their own resources.
Baroness Young (born 1951), former residential social worker, lecturer in media studies and now cross-bench peer in the House of Lords, accepted the invitation to chair the inquiry because, she says, she wanted to challenge the ‘doom, disability and death’ attitude that she finds among her friends and colleagues in response to old age. ‘It’s as though we have so much knowledge of what can go wrong with us, it’s made people much more pessimistic. To me, that knowledge is a positive thing.’
She in fact dislikes the label ‘baby boomer’, partly because she detests all labels and partly because she feels it obscures ‘some very real differences and schisms in society at that time’ – not least, the inequalities. ‘Swinging London wasn’t the main motif in my life in the 60s. I was brought up in a children’s home and there was no love and peace in my life,’ she points out. There were also very few black British-born children of her age – no baby boom there.
She is clearly enjoying her older age. ‘Although the first 20 years of my life were miserable, I feel lucky to be doing what I am doing today and I only do what I enjoy. I am fortunate in that I am OK financially; I’ve got a lovely son, good friends and life is fine. And I get asked to do such interesting things. What keeps me going is knowing that I can at least contribute to the debates about some of these issues, if not change things. At its core, that is what life is about for me.’
She has, she says, more freedom than ever before: ‘Freedom to say what I think. I’m not vulnerable any more.’
The Inquiry hasn’t come up with any clear answers to its questions but it has come up with a message: that baby boomers should not be regarded simply as a burden on younger generations. Just as they challenged social expectations in the 1960s, so in the 2010s they will challenge attitudes to old age and change how we care for our elders and how they care for themselves. Baby boomers, the report argues, are entering old age in a spirit of combat and adventure, not ‘quiet desperation’.
We thought it would be interesting to talk to a small and randomly selected group of baby boomer counsellors and psychotherapists about their readiness for and expectations of old age: how well do they feel their life course and choices have prepared them for the inevitability of physical and mental decline and death? Six counsellors/psychotherapists agreed to be interviewed.
Tim Bond (born 1949), Professor of Counselling and Professional Ethics at the University of Bristol, grammar school and university-educated child of a self-made businessman and a doctor, says he feels very fortunate. While his life has not been without its difficulties, ‘I have a real sense of fulfilment and achievement, particularly in close relationships, and I think that brings a sense of purpose and joy that sustains one for the future. On the mental health front, counselling when I needed it, meditation and a balance between intellectual work and physical activity all help. But in the end it’s values that enable you to keep going, to endure the more difficult moments and enjoy the successes and achievements. For me, these are commitment to people, commitment to the environment, a delight in human diversity and the cultural energy of this extraordinary period we are living through, and a sustained but quiet commitment to Quaker values of peace, simplicity, honesty and equality’.
Julia Buckroyd (born 1946), psychotherapist and Emeritus Professor of Counselling at the University of Hertfordshire, grew up in Scotland and went to a direct grant school for girls, followed by university, an MA and PhD, all paid for by the state or academic grants, she points out. Like Baroness Young, she believes the baby boomer label conceals important differences: ‘For all the stuff about the 60s, certainly where I was living in Scotland, there was not much female emancipation. I think I’ve struggled all my life except for the past 15 years for equality and autonomy’.
She doesn’t see old age as a destination – the armchair by the fireside: ‘Settling into old age isn’t part of my life plan. My ambition is to be the person I have the potential to be, and this project will continue to the day I die. I have something to offer and I want to offer it. To me age is immaterial but it has the advantage that I feel I now have some authority; I know what I am talking about. And I don’t want to go before I’ve told people what I’ve found out.’
Even in rural Derbyshire, psychoanalytic psychotherapist Lennox Thomas (born in Grenada 1952; came to the UK in 1960) was aware that he was living through ‘probably one of the most privileged times to have been young. When I look at previous and later generations, I think we had the best of it.’ Although there were costs: ‘I lost a lot of friends who died way, way too young. One friend died through drugs, three were killed in a Mini going round the roundabout the wrong way for a laugh. Another died trying to cross the North Circular after going out clubbing. I feel fortunate: I might have been with them.’
Family, friendships formed in boyhood in the church choir, his parents’ Christian socialist values and insistence that their children should make their own faith choices, and psychoanalysis have all played their part in his preparedness for old age. ‘I began to have my own personal psychoanalysis at a pretty young age and that has been very helpful to me. It’s made me what I am today, prepared me for who I am now. It’s helped me to occupy the whole of myself. I have a sense of my own agency. It’s taught me to be clear-minded about relationships and friendships and it’s taught me a lot about me and what I want.’
Michael King (born in New Zealand, 1950), Professor of Primary Care Psychiatry at University College London, faced prejudice and arrest as a young man growing up gay in a very conventional society where homosexuality wasn’t legalised until 1984. ‘I remember seeing men arrested for so-called indecent behaviour. It was not a nice climate. From my 20s, when I came to England, that was when my life began,’ he says.
But being gay brings many advantages that are helpful in older age, he has found. ‘Maybe you learn quicker to survive in a tough world. When you are on the outside of society you see the hypocrisy much more clearly. You have to survive against people’s opinions, so you grow a kind of strength. I have seen death, I have lost friends to AIDS, it doesn’t frighten me.’ Gay people, and older gay people in particular, seem to have an extra resilience. ‘We’ve done a lot of research on this and up to age 40 there are a lot of mental health problems in gay and lesbian people, two or three times as much, but in our 60s, if anything, the rates are lower.
‘Gay people are very independent. There’s an adaptability in gay men that is different to the typical heterosexual male with a wife doing things for him. Our relationships are more equal. It could be that we’ve got to the state we should have been when we were 20. As you get older, you get bolder, and not so embarrassed by things. Though I don’t think you necessarily get wiser.’
As old as you feel?
Counsellor, psychosexual therapist and BACP Fellow Carol Martin-Sperry (born 1944) strongly identifies as a baby boomer. ‘For me, life started in 1963. Socially it was an incredibly flourishing and rich period. The 50s were all about rationing, smog, poverty, boredom, very class structured, very conventional. But I think we were quite a selfish generation. We took everything for granted and thought we had the right to everything.’
Reality hit Carol Martin-Sperry around her 60th birthday, she says. ‘I wish I could retire but I can’t because my pension is tiny, my state pension is tiny and my husband is freelance with major health problems. It hit me when I was 60 – but I have no regrets, absolutely no regrets. Carpe diem is my philosophy: live as much as possible in the present and make the most of it. There’s no point in worrying about the future.
‘In my head I feel I am in my mid-30s but bits of my body keep reminding me I’m not. I think our task is to “mind the gap” between our fantasy that we are still in our 30s and the realities of old age.’
Richard House (born 1954), Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood at the University of Winchester, is an archetypal baby boomer: working-class parents, grammar school educated, followed by Oxford University and the consequent shift into the professional middle classes, although he says he still feels a deep connection to his working-class roots and has always shared his father’s left wing political convictions. House says he doesn’t have a sense of being any age. ‘I’m nearing 60 and that just seems completely bizarre when I feel I still have the spirit, energy and passion of a 25-year-old. But my body says different. It’s only when your body starts to let you down – that does begin to make you more aware of your age.’ The fact that he is staring to put on weight around his middle is beginning to worry him – unduly, he suspects.
And he worries too that his resilience may be waning. ‘I’m in a demanding job at the moment, which I’m finding very stressful, and I’m not sure whether that is because I’m older and haven’t got the resources to cope with these pressures any more, or whether it’s the job itself, and/or the Higher Education sector more generally that is toxic. But I’m grateful that I’m more able to process these experiences; I do feel I have a maturity that enables me to manage these things that I didn’t have 20 years ago.’
Tim Bond is greatly looking forward to retirement and the chance to do all the other things he wants to do in life. ‘So long as I am mentally agile there are several things I can move forward on the academic front. And, as I start to step back from academic life, that opens up space for other things that matter to me, such as wildlife conservation. I am looking forward to new friendships and other ways of being in the world.’
He feels ‘well prepared’ for older age, but is also conscious of the legacy his generation will be handing on to the next. ‘We will be creating both a social and financial burden for the young people who will be taking over the economic control of the country, and there’s all the environment change, climate change that we have happily handed on. We need to think about this legacy, how we mitigate some of the harm we have done and help the next generation face these challenges but at the same time we need to hand over control.’
Julia Buckroyd is positively relishing old age. ‘I am very powerfully driven by purpose and I think part of my driven-ness was having to prove myself to my parents and I don’t feel that quite as much as I used to.’ She called a truce with herself in her 50s, after a final bout of psychotherapy. ‘Since then I’ve been so much happier, so much more content and less worried about just about everything,’ she says. ‘I went because I was sick of not being the person I thought I had the potential to be. Just the experience with that particular therapist, regular reliable contact with someone who appeared to be pleased to see me, did the job really. It has been extremely freeing.’
And no, she doesn’t feel her age. ‘I get tripped up by my physical weakening. I am not as strong as I used to be. But I am doing pretty well and I am very fortunate to have nothing of any significance wrong with me. I am much more careful about what I eat and drink and make sure I am rested in a way that I never used to. I am taking better care of myself because I want this state to continue as long as possible. I don’t think I could have been that kind to myself before. One of the things I enjoy is my competence. I feel as if I know what I am doing with clients and that is a nice feeling. That could overbalance into a ridiculous conceit, but I don’t think it does. I feel confident doing the work.’
So what are the qualities and ingredients of life that these baby boomers think will serve them well in old age?
‘Faith,’ says Michael King. ‘I have always had a strong Christian faith, not as a crutch but because I am fascinated emotionally and spiritually in God and what our life means. It gives my life meaning. My partner. We’ve been together nearly 30 years. The fact that we can live openly together.’ And his job: ‘I like my work and living in Europe.’ The personal qualities that he thinks will help him through old age include his ‘foolish optimism’, and his gregariousness: ‘People don’t bore me. That’s why I’m a psychiatrist. I love seeing people, it keeps me intellectually alert.’
Lennox Thomas is looking forward to retiring at 65. ‘Then I will do voluntary work because it will benefit me and other people. I wouldn’t want to be stuck doing nothing. I want to be doing something useful.’ He says his children (now in their late teens and early 20s) keep him mentally young, even though physically he does feel his age. ‘They keep me in touch with things and optimistic.’ A sense of humour and readiness to see the best in things are also going to serve him well, he believes. ‘I can’t stand grumpy people.’
For Richard House ‘it’s the old humanistic cliché about knowing myself; being able to be myself more fully, to be real, authentic in relationship – classic Rogers stuff. I’m sure that has helped me no end, not just in personal relationships but professional ones as well.’ Passion and conviction will, he believes, help him weather old age. ‘It’s about being passionate about life. I have a strong sense of what is wrong with the world and I’m on a crusade to set those wrongs right. It sounds grandiose and pompous and it’s probably classic baby boomer stuff but that is my life journey. I don’t want to be lying on my death bed knowing that I didn’t do justice to what I am here for. I want to feel I have really given it my best.’
For Carol Martin-Sperry, the keys to a healthy old age are self-awareness, actively taking care of her health, and acceptance of death; ‘it gives one a certain kind of energy,’ she says. She wishes she could find a group for people in their 60s to ‘talk experientially about where we are now’.
‘Death will come to us all and we have to make the most of our relationships and friendships. I went to a workshop recently on professional retirement. The consensus was that working until you drop is a defence against fear of death and giving up work and taking up lots of activities is also a defence against death. We are all going to die. That’s OK.’