How to be Fifty

“I’d rather be dead than sing Satisfaction when I’m 45” said Mick Jagger when he was an ancient 31.

He’s not the only person to have misjudged the experience of ageing. When I was ten years younger than Sir Mick, at 21 and working for a record company, I set my retirement date for my company pension at 55. It was inconceivable to me that I’d still be standing, let alone working at such an advanced age. Now I’m three years away from that pension maturing and decades away from any desire to shuffle off into the gloaming. I’m certainly not unique. As of 2014, the populations over forty forms a majority, 32.4% of the population; currently undervalued, ignored by our consumer culture and entirely unrecognisable from the generations who came before us. We are the invisible majority and once again pioneers, pushing against the boundaries of expectation and the stereotypes imposed on us by a society slow to adapt to the speed of change that’s ensued since the 1960s social revolution.

The over fifties now own a remarkable 80% of the UK’s wealth yet only have 4% of the UK’s advertising spend directed at them. If that’s not irresponsible business policy, I’m not sure what is. We are swing voters, choosing our political allegiances not based on party loyalty but by pragmatism and personal choice, yet find me the politician who speaks to us directly?

Contrary to popular opinion we have no brand loyalty and can be enticed as easily as any teenager, the difference being we have the money to pay for what we want. Yet name me the brand that actively seeks out our custom? If you don’t believe me consult the major report recently commissioned by YouGov and Enders Analysis to investigate the commercial value of key, older affluent, audiences which nicknames us Generation Wealth.

I recently watched Claire Enders, founder of the latter deliver a compelling talk to the Bertelsmann group on why this demographic couldn’t be ignored. Her revolutionary findings were followed by three days of discussion on how to attract teenagers! On a smaller scale advertising giant JWT, in conjunction with advocacy enterprise High50, came up with equally compelling results. So why isn’t the commercial world actively seeking out this generation that not only knows what it likes but actually has the budget to pursue those dreams? And why is hitting fifty such a debilitating blow for so many. Judging by these reports it should be the high point of our lives, a mid way point where self assurance, maturity, hard work and emotional confidence pay off and pave the path to better enjoy the second chapter of our earthly tenure. Instead for many of my generation, beaten down by cultural forces, retired by a society that renders them invisible, disparaged by workplaces that no longer value their contribution, it can feel like the beginning of redundancy.

Personally I’ve tried not to be preoccupied with ageing. Competitive to the core it seemed a self-defeating battle. I approached my landmark birthday eyes tight shut, hurtling headlong into the dark with my fingers crossed. Only this time, it really was dark. No matter how sanguine you are about our inevitable journey toward a terminal conclusion, hitting fifty is a shocker. A morbid sense of a life half-lived, the sense of having more years behind you then ahead, mourning for opportunities missed, made the idea of ‘celebrating’ the passing of what, optimistically speaking, was half my life, seem masochistic. Long anticipated plans for the mother of all knees ups; complete with dancing and speeches and tears and disgraceful behaviour, were shelved in favour of a quick drink with my girlfriend Amy, followed by dinner with my husband. Luckily the two had organised a surprise mini surprise dinner, which rescued the day from total oblivion. But the wide eyed, glassy, congratulatory smiles of those around the table still some distance from their fifties, provided further proof of the terrible precipice I was apparently stepping over. When my only regular TV show, SKY Arts, The Book Show, was shelved shortly afterwards it felt like I really had hit a life low. Restoring a house in Somerset so we could move out of town became my preoccupation. That way I could dodge the pity and try to unravel my feelings of failure and dispensability.

Yet, there lingered a small fire flickering in my breast, could this really be it. Were slow decline and a diminishing address book for the next forty years to be the best that I could hope for? The propaganda aimed at the over fifties is enough to make Euthanasia look like an aspirational escape route. Luckily Saga never fell through my letterbox, welcoming me to a new world of soft food, group trips to heritage sites and Florida cruises but in fairness, they’re not the only ones peddling a prehistoric vision of middle age. Once privy to an avalanche of notices of designer sales and new restaurant openings, the only unsolicited advertising I was now attracting was for constipation or retirement funding. When I looked at television, aside from gritty box set dramas, my generation was virtually invisible. It didn’t help when the BBC said they didn’t need any more menopausal comedies – that’s my generation wiped off the screens – apart from Jeremy Clarkson of course. I began to suspect their children were replacing columnists byline pictures and even the Prime Minister seemed ridiculously boyish to be running a country, (the jury’s still out on the latter). On film I fared better with iconic movie stars like George Clooney and Julianne Moore, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and Sandra Bullock all turning fifty during the same period and offering the possibility that a tweed twinset and sensible shoes weren’t the only future for my accessorising.

It was like inhabiting two separate worlds, a tangible one filled with energetic, sexy, adventurous, hard-working and generally active friends in their fifties and a wider world where neither myself or my contemporaries seemed to exist al all. Politicians don’t talk to us, advertisers ignore us, we aren’t sold music or movies, fashion or cosmetics, bar ‘miracle’ creams promising to reduce our wrinkles so we might can dare show our faces in public. ‘Mutton’ by India Knight opens with a brilliantly observed comic moment as her heroine prepares to pass a building site and is disconcerted when she’s greeted, not by the anticipated wolf whistling from the merry crew of labourers but total silence. It’s a reality for a woman over forty and a metaphor for how it feels to be fifty in our ageist society. Luckily fumbling around in the crepuscular light of my fading star I bumped into an old friend and veteran of the advertising industry, who’s always had his finger on the zeitgeist. Robert Campbell had also recently turned fifty and as it turned out, was not prepared to go down without a tussle. “Join Me,” he urged, I’ve just started a little company called High50, we’re going to start a revolution among the over fifties. “What’s the philosophy behind it?” I asked him. “We don’t touch it if it smells of wee,” he laughed. It may be brutal but having been assaulted the day before while online by a loud and unsolicited advert for panty liners playing out on my computer, while an 18-year-old geek was trying to fix my computer, I was already on a war footing with the stereotyping of my generation. I decided to climb on board and rather than hide behind a Somerset haystack, stand up and shout loud about the myriad crimes against the middle-aged being committed every day.

Not that the over fifties are actually in need of sympathy; what we really need is a makeover in the eyes of the Western World. With role models from Michelle Obama to Elle MacPherson, our determination not to disappear into the obscurity of village fetes and terminally slow yoga classes couldn’t be clearer. But still our image and attitudes toward the over fifties are stuck way back in the dark ages. Who knew that far from edging ever closer to retirement, according to High50 we are the most powerful generation in the western world? I’ve yet to see that reality emblazoned on a newspaper banner, or celebrated on a daily news programme, yet surely it offers good news for all?

My generation is used to shouting about injustice, particularly the female fraternity. Having inherited the ‘right to work’ from our feminist mothers and fought for basic human rights, equal pay and the perfect marriage of male and female influence in the world, it seems slightly unjust that at this stage in our lives, having bumped our heads regularly on the glass ceiling, we now have to hit a brick wall.

Women who are past childbearing, another traumatic watershed that coincides with ones fifth decade, are summed up in our view of the menopause. Ignorance and embarrassment would seen to be the two descriptive terms that best apply. Having paid thousands of pounds during my working life to a private health care provider in the hope of access to swift and up to date medical care when I most needed it, imagine my surprise to find that this vulnerable period in a woman’s life isn’t covered. Not seen as individual symptoms, everything from headaches to sleeplessness, anxiety to memory loss is off limits and tarred with the menopausal brush. The response from my insurance company when I asked for cover to investigate insomnia and palpitations was an unwelcome surprise, “we don’t cover it” I was told flatly, “it’s natural”. That’s a battle I’m still fighting.

What was really shocking though, having moaned about it in a column, was finding myself approached by total strangers, on the street, on the subway, and even out at night (yes I even go dancing on occasion!), who would gaze meaningfully into my eyes, squeeze my hand and whisper “you’re so brave” intimately into my ear. Even at the Chiltern Firehouse, that rest home for the weary global celebrity I wasn’t safe. Despite Michael Fassbender leering in the corner, a very pretty girl in her thirties had eyes only for me. As I left for the bathroom she intercepted me “You’re our hero” she gushed, glancing back at her gaggle of girlfriends, “you’re so cool. Is there nothing you’re embarrassed about, not even the M word?” I hadn’t survived a war or a terrorist attack, given cancer a run for its money, or saved a drowning dog. All I’d done to elicit this wave of admiration for my courage was mention the Menopause, and apparently braver still, admit that my time had come. Such is the stigma attached to a hormonally turbulent period that affects every woman in entirely subjective ways and marks nothing more dramatic than a release from the tyranny of fertility! Millennia of women’s worth being totted up in childbirth and rearing has allowed the end of that particular period to be seen as the beginning of death. Yet having now passed that milestone, and lived through some of the debilitating impact it can have on your sense of self worth and sanity, I have to admit I’m finally ready to start popping the champagne corks and cancelling my useless health insurance policy.

These days fifty is the new black if you’ll pardon the confusion of descriptive terms. Some of the most iconic figures of contemporary culture have passed that watershed, from Brad Pitt to Julianne Moore, Not only does better diet and general health mean we’re living longer and more youthfully, we also look and feel twenty years younger than the previous generation did at our age. Desperately chasing youth is not to be encouraged but a determination to continue cultivating our assets is fuelling a culinary revolution of quinoa obsessed, fat reducing, 2 x 5 dieting and Nutribullet imbibing mid lifers. We’re also remaining in touch with fashion, music and film with our musical tastes often formed by plucking the wheat from the chaff of our children’s and god-children’s listening habits. Popular radio seems to skip straight from the charts to retro classics with nary a glance at new music by artists that tickle our acoustic taste buds.

According to analyst Claire Enders the age group we share our closest links to aren’t retirees but teenagers. Our hormones are raging, we’re interested in pleasing ourselves and the rest of the world be damned and we really don’t care what people think about us. The spirit of punk lives on, not in spotty youths but in those who reach fifty to Age it seems from someone who had steeped over the invisible precipice where the wider world designates you old, increasingly seems to be all in the mind. It’s certainly the opinion of the celebrated healer and life coach, Fiona Arrigo, among whose many clients are a large proportion of people, particularly women, hitting that headline birthday.

It’s not like society gives us much ammunition for joy. Dried up, over the hill, still swinging when we should be singing in a choir, the list of preconceptions and misconceptions about the most iconic birthday of our life span is long and depressing. And a hundred years ago I admit there was little to excite the palate about middle age. Women became their mothers, men sported potbellies and nostril hair and children had plenty to revolt against. Look at us now, from the latest Bond Girl Monica Bellucci to the worlds most desirable man George Clooney.

When I took a job at a record company in 1980, it seemed perfectly sensible to make 55 my retirement age on the company pension. I’m three years away from that date without either the intention or desire to hang up my boots, which is lucky as the pension is worth peanuts. Like so many of my hand-working generation, I’ll still be selling my soul for sovereigns when I’m seventy by the looks of it. It’s all very well for the government to designate 70 as the new retirement age but where are the employers queuing for mature employees, the companies taking on fifty something women returned from mothering to the workforce? The advantages of workers no longer young enough to be starting families, with maturity, experience and a desperate desire to get out of the house seem so obvious it’s a mystery why they’re not top of the employment list.

There are plenty out there who might laugh at the notion of such silliness but if we’re not allowed to work and the state can’t afford to keep us, just what are we meant to do with these endlessly increasing lifespans that see us healthy, happy and energetic well into our seventies. There’s been a social revolution; quiet, forceful and emphatic, that’s only slowly making its presence felt outside its beneficiaries. Yet actually we are all the lucky winners in this living lottery win.