© Sudhir Pithwa

Culture

The old rules of ageing are being torn up

Westminster might be on life support, but the good news is it has never been easier to live long and prosperously

So, as Brexit continues to obsess the Westminster class and the markets scrutinise the UK economy with brutal scepticism, it is important not to lose sight of the main question. Namely: how old is too old to subscribe to GQ?

At what age are you obliged to hang up your Gucci suit, box away your limited edition Bowie Vans and accept that your Baume Small Second is a watch for millennials, not old codgers?

And the excellent news is: never. Wear what you like, do what you like, cut a dash. As bumpy a ride as the first quarter of the 21st century is undoubtedly proving, one of its under-reported revolutions has been the near-abolition of old age.

Look, I’m not saying that your body won’t continue to age, that you’ll produce the same amount of testosterone as you did when you were 25, that you won’t need laser eye treatment or hemiarthroplasty for the hips you’ve worn out on the piste or the tennis courts. But the old three-act drama – youth, work and pensioned leisure – is emphatically over.

It’s not just that life expectancy is increasing (as a global average, by five-and-a-half years between 2000 and 2016). The transformation of diet, exercise and medicine in the developed world means we are not only living longer, but living well as we age. The old stereotype of the stooped sixtysomething in slippers and a cardigan is no longer a reflection of reality.

Central to this is the rolling abolition or constraint of previously catastrophic illness. Visit the state-of-the-art labs of professor Molly Stevens at Imperial College London and you’ll realise how close we really are to a range of astonishing breakthroughs that will – for instance – transform even the worst cancers into a chronic, treatable condition (like diabetes) rather than a death sentence.

Ageing is no longer a matter of damage limitation but a glorious opportunity

I recently met a senior oncologist whose work is now so dependent upon computer power that he describes himself as an “algorithmist”. Even Alzheimer’s, the most defiant of age-related illnesses, is starting to yield to the assault of entrepreneurial researchers.

If you need persuading, pack Carl Honoré’s recent book, Bolder: Making The Most Of Our Longer Lives (Simon & Schuster, £16.99), in your holdall. A sensation when he spoke about “slow living” for TED in 2007, Honoré has now turned his attention to the gap between an obsolete ageist culture – one that assumes “older” means “worse”, “weaker” and “out-of-touch” – with the reality he encountered in his research.

His point is that ageing is no longer a matter of damage limitation but a glorious opportunity to try new things, invest our financial and social capital, do good and live well. In this account, Sir Mick Jagger – still dancing like a rock god Nijinsky at 76 – is no longer the outlier but the avatar of a new way of growing old that was literally inconceivable when The Rolling Stones were formed. Honoré tracks down extraordinary people all over the world – from Bangkok to Toronto to Lebanon – who are defying the dreary path of “senior life” paved by previous generations.

What’s the catch? The catch is that, as The Streets warned us, “a grand don’t come for free” – and neither does a transformation in demography and living habits. More people living longer means just about every aspect of our social fabric will change.

Some of the adjustment will be a matter of civilised negotiation. How to make use of the 75-year-old employee who wants to make way for someone younger but would like to stay involved in the enterprise? How to give older people a real opportunity to keep studying?

But some of the consequences will be straightforwardly fiscal. More people, needing more housing, more health care and (crucially) more social care. The cost will be huge and dancing round this core social fact is deeply irresponsible.

No political party has even begun to address this problem: when Theresa May dipped her toe in the water of social care reform in the 2017 election campaign, she was forced into retreat in days. During the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, George Osborne suggested a mansion tax: the idea was slapped down by David Cameron.

But Osborne was right. There is no question that to meet the future needs of public provision we are going to have to start taxing wealth more heavily, through higher inheritance tax, stamp duty, a mansion tax or all three.

Needless to say, this will not be popular. For decades, we have been told that we inhabit a “property-owning democracy” in which wealth “cascades down the generations”. But – just as we must reduce carbon emissions, and fast – so we will have to grow used to a new relationship with our assets if the basic social fabric is to survive. This is not Corbynite socialism. It is the necessary evolution of any society that wants to function and survive.

But keep your eyes on the prize. You’re going to live longer, and better, and be able to grow old as disgracefully as you wish. The old rules are being torn up. Anything is possible. And you can read GQ with pride and swagger for the rest of your life. What’s not to like?

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