Life's been a blast for the baby boomers but how does it really feel
now that they are 60? Two writers square off
November 15, 2008
Alan Franks and Lucia van der Post
By turning 60, as he did yesterday, the Prince of Wales is, of
course, typical of his generation. It is what has been happening
these past 11 and a half months to all his fellow baby-boomers who
were born three years after the end of the war. In another sense,
however, his case is unlike any of his contemporaries', and not just
because he is Royal; his career is all back-to-front, with the last
few decades taken up in the passionate but amateur pursuit of his
interests - architecture, polo, organic farming - and the real job,
reigning, still to come through.
His situation is tragic-comic. He has been trained for a position
that might not fall vacant until he is 80, while his contemporaries
look forward to retirements with greater expectations than any
previous generation. Their health is rude and their awareness of it
is at unprecedented levels. If ever they smoked, they don't any more,
at least not like they used to. If they drank too much, they've
probably taken action on that one too. Likewise fatty food. No good
digging in for a long third age if cholesterol, weight and blood
pressure are all over the odds.
Martyrs to hedonism
The ones who did not modify their behaviour in the light of raised
levels of health-consciousness are possibly dead, or getting there,
unsung martyrs to the hedonism of their youth. There is 60, and there
are the Sixties, and to be the one entails having lived through the
other. Yet the resemblance between the two is nominal, or numerical.
Doing 60 properly means looking soberly at your condition and its
fitness for the still-long future. This may be a practical means of
prolonging your capacity for fun and leisure, but it is also a
violation of the instant gratification that amounted to a creed for
the young of that decade.
Who could blame them? For many, particularly the sons and daughters
of the consolidating middle class, everything was on offer. The war
was over and there were to be no more such eruptions in Europe in the
course of their lifetime to date; at least, none close enough to
impinge on them. They were the literal children of the National
Health Service. Higher education was expanding and you weren't even
going to be lumbered with a loan that would weigh you down into the
foothills of your middle years. An unimagined window of opportunity
flew open between the arrival of the Pill and the coming of Aids. You
clambered through it as you would through the windows of a
fascinating and long-forbidden house.
Inside, everything was a splurge of colour and the best bands in the
world were playing. Some of them haven't stopped. Your parents' eyes
were so dimmed by the monochrome of austerity that they could not
begin to envisage it, although you could catch the most enlightened
of them humming "When I'm 64", and naturally getting it wrong. You
did the Hippy Hippy Shake. They did the Shaky Shaky Hip.
One of the most ardent self-images of the newly 60 has them as being
far closer, socially and emotionally, with their own adult young than
was the case in the previous generation. You see a version of this in
the Royal Family: Prince Charles is more au fait with the pressures
on William and Harry than Prince Philip ever was with him. Gordon
Brown - still only 57, it's true - doesn't sound quite right when he
says he likes the Arctic Monkeys, but you can see what he's up to.
The newly 60 have not lost the taste for partying (see panel). Not
all of them can afford to do it like Elton John, who threw a
400-guest bash at the Cathedral Church of St John Divine in New York.
But they use their ingenuity, often to fulfil long-standing
ambitions, such as an evening defiantly devoted to the tango. One
party I went to this year was crammed with ageless wigged hippies
obeying the Sixties motif of the invitation. Parties like these are
acknowledging the Big Six milestone, but they are also thumbing their
noses at it as it flashes by. At another a close friend of mine sang
a version of Little Eva's hit from that time, The Locomotion, to the
backing of his musician sons. But he had re-written the lyrics so
that the refrain became "Come on baby, do the Freedom Bus Pass." It
was such a hit that I got him to do it at mine.
Those who are now 60 have rolled through half a century-plus like a
mighty wave, swelling first the maternity wards, then the schools and
universities, then the workplaces, the suburbs, the timeshares, the
fitness clubs, and then, ultimately - but not for a while yet, oh no
- the old people's homes and the cemeteries.
Old? Who said old? It's not a word you hear in Sixty Street. Very bad
form to use it. Five years ago there was this notion that 50 was the
new 40. The call was taken up by an advertising industry eager to tap
grey spending power, but it was eagerly echoed by the The Generation
itself. At 60, they don't so much claim as grudgingly admit to being
the new 50. They would rather it was still 40 because they remain
greedy for youth. Youth was their prerogative and they are not going
to surrender it without a struggle.
Laudable in many ways, but potentially embarrassing too. Prince
Charles's contemporaries might be in the condition of denial that
walks hand in hand with indulgence. Age for them is the place where
their mothers and fathers lived, and perhaps still do. For it is now
the lot of the 60-year-old to be slung between parents of apparently
infinite age and technically adult children who stay at home for a
similar infinity. Both categories go on in this way partly because
they can, but also because they have no choice. Longevity and the
economy are the respective causes.
The world is having the nerve to be passing from their control.
Prince Charles may not yet have attained the office of his destiny,
but he is not entirely alone. Hillary Clinton's failure to get the
Democrat nomination was a bell that sounded the passing of the
Boomers' dominance. It has happened in our own capital too, with Ken
Livingstone, 63, being replaced by a Boristocracy nearly 20 years
younger. Quite right too, say Mr and Mrs Sixty, but, well, damn it.
By having paid off their mortgage and drawing an earnings-related
pension, they might be recession-proof. But they might not be; if
their future income is derived from a defined contribution, or
pension pot, it's looking hazardous, stressful even. Whether gambling
was a weakness of their youth or not, they have now been turned into
punters on a turbulent stock market. There is a bitter poetic justice in it.
Still, the house price slump is not all bad news. Obviously you don't
want the value of your home to drop too humiliatingly; self-esteem is
inconveniently vulnerable to crashes in your financial worth. But it
could bring the low rungs of the market into your children's reach.
The spectre at the table
Nasty old Alzheimer's stalks the scene. Between them Mr and Mrs Sixty
probably have a parent who has been kept going for years by the care
at Downview, but who hasn't the faintest idea who anybody is. This is
straining beyond endurance the fairly new commonplace of a
relationship with a parent that stretches into your own late middle
age. They see a spectre of their own future and privately pray that
someone will come up with a cure in the next 20 years.
After all, there's glucosamine for those joint pains that you thought
only other people got; now there are statins that will stop you
getting heart attacks. If things get sluggish downstairs, there are
"apparently" those little blue pills whose name you pretend to
forget. Surely they can come up with something, anything, to stop you
going ga-ga and failing to recognise yourself in the mirror. Surely
it will be all right in the end. Won't it? It always has been up to now.
YEAH, BABY - TEAR UP THE RULE BOOK - Lucia van der Post
Nicky Haslam, the interior designer, celebrated with a facelift.
Stephen Hawking went for learned discussions on warping spacetime and
wormholes with fellow cosmologists. Lady Annabel Astor (the mother of
Mrs David Cameron) sailed around the Aegean with 30 of her nearest
and dearest in three yachts, while Lord Lloyd-Webber celebrated twice
- once with a house party for 40 of his closest friends at his home
in Majorca and more publicly with a star-studded concert in Hyde Park.
Meanwhile the Prince of Wales, who was 60 yesterday, has celebrated
with a banquet at Buckingham Place (given by his mother) on Thursday
for 170 guests, and a smaller party (organised by the Duchess of
Cornwall, with Rod Stewart singing free) for 60 family and friends at
But it seems that when it comes to 60th birthday parties there are no
rules. The mood seems to be that you've made it this far, so it's to
hell with convention; you've earned the right to do it your way.Since
60 is the new 50 it's clear that the world - funds permitting - is
still your oyster.
With luck, nobody's yet in a wheelchair and, as Johnny Roxborough of
the party and events organisers The Admirable Crichton, who has
organised more 60th birthday bashes than Nicky Haslam has been to,
puts it: "It's almost like the last hurrah. You're all still active
enough to do something physical and you've also worked out who your
friends are so you don't have to ask a whole lot of hangers-on, which
is why 60th birthday parties are often smaller and more intimate than
the celebrations for 40th and 50ths."
Roxborough is busy, as it happens, planning his very own 60th, which
comes up next May. He originally wanted a big bash but is now
thinking of something more low-key. "Instead of taking all my friends
abroad [as he did for his 40th and 50th] we're going to have a tent
in our wonderful garden in Norfolk. I'd like to say that I was going
to keep it simple, but I know it will end up being exotic and
glamorous and then we'll have drinks in our barn, which will also be
decorated and magical. We'll move to the tent for dinner and back to
the barn for dancing afterwards."
But the charm of abroad, as he points out, is that however lavish or
exotic the celebrations they "aren't in anybody's face the way they
would be back home". More importantly, the celebration abroad -
whether in a Venetian palazzo, a Rajasthani fort, a Mediterranean
villa or (think of Sir Philip Green's 55th at Soneva Fushi in the
Maldives) an eco-spa - allows friends to bond and share an
experience. This seems to be key to the 60th birthday bash. "People
want to have an adventure with their friends or discover an amazing
new place together and get to know each other in a deeper way."
Organisation is all. You can't, after all, just invite people to Rome
and leave them to mill around, waiting for their dinner. A whole new
breed of travel agents and party planners have grown fat on their
ability to deliver the essential surprises and the military-like
battle plans these celebrations require. Everything starts with the
invitations. The aim is to be different and inspiring. Sophie
Lillingston of the party planner Lillingston (www.lillingston.co.uk)
has sent them out in the shape of artists' palettes (friends had to
paint a reply), flip-flops (for a beachside party), miniature orange
trees (a three-day bonanza in Majorca) and olive trees (a Grecian idyll).
Now the world seems like a different place. Lavish is not going to be
the catchword. One of Lillingston's clients was pondering what to do
for her "big O" and she finally came to the conclusion that instead
of a great big bash for all their friends where she wouldn't be able
to have a proper conversation with any of them, she would have a
dinner party a month for the whole year. The numbers were between ten
and 16 each time and on each evening there was a different theme and
a different chef.
Perhaps the classiest thing of all, though, is to do what Lady Helen
Hamlyn did when her husband, Sir Paul Hamlyn, turned 60. She took
over the Royal Opera House for a night and filled it with people who
had never seen an opera or a ballet before. He was so thrilled by his
present that he decided to go on funding Hamlyn nights for the next
20 years and now more than 200,000 people have had their eyes and
ears opened to the wonders of music and dance. And one other thing:
invitations for 60th birthday parties should always say "no
presents". Anything else is naff.
AS TIME GOES BY
2.2bn Number of times your heart will have beaten by the time you are 60
1.5m The average number of hairs you will have moulted
6,570 Number of days spent sleeping
2.16 Number of metres your nails would have grown if you had never cut them