20 Reasons jacket

20 Reasons You Won’t Grow Old Like . this poor old couple on the British road sign is a thought-provoking report on the way today’s new old are changing the face of ageing.

The ‘new old’ are the generation born during or just after World War II and responsible for the revolutionary youth culture of the 1960s.

Each of the ’20 Reasons’ shows in one chapter how a particular feature of post-war culture is modifying a traditional late-life value.

Many of the book’s ideas are controversial.

For example, it claims that individualism is the best survival strategy in later life.

It argues that the financial privilege so keenly resented by some younger people is as much a matter of boomer psychology as economic advantage.

It warns that unless they take more exercise and less alcohol many of today’s sixty-somethings won’t live as long as today’s 80-100 year-olds.

This is not an academic book,  but end notes and references are there for students of social history. 

Who needs to read this book?

20 Reasons is social-history-plus for young people who have no clear concept of what later life is likely to hold for them.

It’s a valuable eye-opener for 40-somethings who are already sensitive to ageism and gloomy about the idea of working on to seventy.

It’s an encouraging read for age-defying 50-60-pluses who still see being old as their own aged parents’ thing, not their own.

It’s a wake-up call for policymakers, health-care professionals and manufacturers who plan on treating the old of the future as more of the same, with the same old attitudes and needs.

They’re so wrong!

Not yet offered for publication

ISBN 978-0-9559542-0-7  Copyright © Margaret Gullan-Whur 2008

20 Reasons jacket


SBN 978-0-9559542-0-7  Copyright © Margaret Gullan-Whur 2008


In 2003 a group of doctors complained to The British Medical Journal about the road sign warning drivers to watch out for elderly people. They claimed it “stigmatised” the old by suggesting that we must all expect bent backs.

In 2008 Age Concern and Help the Aged (now combined as Age UK) condemned the sign as ageist, and called for its removal. Yet it’s still in use, and according to a Daily Mail reader poll in August 2008 most people see no harm in it.

But image does matter. If golliwog icons on street posts were seriously meant to refer to black people there would be public outrage.  Stale images keep prejudice alive if they linger while the world moves on.  Banning them gives new images a chance.

It’s in everyone’s interest to get real about getting old.


It first appeared in 1981 after winning a children’s competition to design a new one. Almost none of the 19th-century-born eighty-pluses it depicted are now alive. But even then it was unfair. In 1981 people who’d survived to eighty-plus had endured two world wars, recession, mockery from an uncaring youth culture and healthcare lacking such sensational cures as hip replacement and heart by-pass surgery. The way they coped could teach us a lot in today’s tough economic times.

Yes, some did look beaten – by pre-war poverty, chronic health problems and lack of the deference they’d been brought up to expect from the young. But others stood out as role models for happy ageing. They didn’t attract ageist comments, and younger people thought they were ‘wonderful’.


The schoolgirl who designed the road sign drew what she saw around her, which was lots of old people out and about, braving the traffic of busy modern streets. She was, without knowing it, helping to document a 20th-century ageing revolution.

In 1981 more and people were living longer lives. In the 1930s retirement had still been for most a swift and sickly decline from work into death. Now, suddenly, with better living conditions and free medical care, many more people born in developed, pension-giving countries were reaching their eighties and nineties.

Governments agonised over soaring pension and healthcare costs. Noting the fall in birth rates after 1964 they began, by 1981, to foresee a ‘longevity crisis’ and a ‘pensions timebomb’. How would they cope as the average age of their populations continued to rise until they included – as happened in Britain in 2008 – more over-sixties than under-sixteens? .Click here to see the statistics  Who would look after all these old people?

But while building residential care homes and budgeting on future healthcare needs and state pensions, policymakers didn’t plan on a different kind of elderly person.


This new ageing revolution is less as a numbers game than a bonfire of preconceptions about what growing old means today. This book shows how and why public perceptions of ageing must alter. Anyone planning on getting old probably has false expectations, while new retirees need to think in terms of surviving successfully in a 21st -century way. Here’s an early hint. The 21st-century is likely to remain a technological era. Given the likelihood of two more decades on earth, sixty-plus is not too old to learn the basic internet skills which will cheer and broaden experience and relationships.

Each chapter is self-contained in focusing on just one visible change in ageing. But they all start with a hard look at the road sign, showing exactly how and why it’s negative, outdated, ageist and depressing.

What matters is constructing a new, honest new image.

How often, for instance, do you see an elderly couple clinging together? Are older partners always of two genders? And how many older women lean on a man today? One of the doctors who replied to the BMJ letter in December 2003 said we should worry that “the woman is very obviously reaching for the man’s purse in his back pocket”.

This crack at women is as outdated as bent backs.


Dramatic changes in sixty-plus attitudes and behaviour first excited the media around the millennium. Back in 1992 a European Commission Survey had found that the “busy” lives claimed by over-sixty fives right across Europe still consisted mainly in TV-watching, shopping, housework, do-it-yourself and gardening.

By the early 21st century, however, many sixty-pluses not only looked fit and young for their years but were actively rejecting this low-key lifestyle.

Everywhere you looked, mature people were staying in work or starting new projects, emigrating, energetically caring for grandchildren and aged parents, spending on consumer fun and travel rather than saving ‘for a rainy day’, being openly sexually adventurous, cool about homosexuality, race and class, finding younger or same-sex – partners, defying medical advice and supporting single-issue causes while distrusting politics and patriotism.


Job-hoggers”, “Crock ‘n rollers”, “Saga louts”, “scalpel junkies”, “hip op generation”, “ski-ers” – spending kids’ inheritance” – roared the media.

Since then there has been endless coverage of ‘ selfish’, ‘greedy’, ‘kidadult’ behaviour, with no explanation and no recognition that the people who challenged and changed society in the 1960s are smashing the grim mould in which society used to isolate the old.

Yet just occasionally there’s baffled admiration; that strange sixth sense of a ‘wonderful’ individual. Not just lucky or healthy; maybe neither.

What make sus call some older people ‘wonderful’? Is it that they’ve reached an age when they should be glum and dependent but aren’t? Or have they been wonderful all their lives, so are simply being themselves? What do they do that makes them seem wonderful? How do their attitudes differ? And what is it about them that can irritate other older people?

These are just some of the questions that run through the book, and are answered bit by bit in the context of historical and real-life situations.


The new ageing revolution is limited to the advanced world, where governments have for half a century funded welfare, healthcare, educational and pension schemes. In this book ‘rich world’ means the nations with the highest GNP per capita and highest average life expectancy at birth: Click here to see the list of rich, advanced nations.

Such rich economies first created the teenager. Now, after half a century, they’re producing a new kind of older person.

As with the teenager, this new-old species first appeared in America. But all nations involved in the liberal reforms of the post-World War II years have to some extent influenced the 21st-century ageing revolution.



‘Baby boomer’ is the most-used label for today’s new old, and it’s apt as far as the new character and attitudes go.

However, as ‘baby boomer’ strictly refers to everyone born during the peacetime birth boom which started to soar in the mid 1940s and stayed high until the mid 1960s, it’s misleading when describing how and why the changes first came about.


Explaining the new kind of older person means explaining a pre-boomer or boomer-vanguard age group, namely those born in the late 1930s and the 1940s. This was the generation that grew up in the shadow of World War II, which was a dreaded threat years before fighting began, and a drain on resources until rationing ended and reconstruction took over around 1950.

Only people in this age-group were old enough to take part in the 1960s counter-culture – the rebellion against rigid establishment values. Younger baby boomers jumped on a youth-culture bandwagon which was already rolling. Condoleeza Rice (born 1954) was for instance just nine years old when she saw student activism in Alabama during the race riots of 1963. Tony Blair (born 1953) modelled himself on Mick Jagger when he set up his own pop band while at school.

It was the war-babies born 1939-45 – Germaine Greer, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Rudi Dutschke, Richard ‘Oz’ Neville, Erica Jong, Tariq Ali and many others – who were the chief trailblazers and hellraisers.


There are important reasons as to why the boomer vanguard powerfully influenced youth culture and is now changing ageing. Raised at a nervy but aspirational point in modern history, they were guinea-pigs for post-war reforms in child-centred learning and lenient child-raising methods. As the birch and the cane were abandoned, and educational psychology weakened parents’ authority, they grew up encouraged to think for themselves and – as had never been true in any previous younger generation – openly living by their inmost feelings.

They’ve grown to retirement age in the same style. And their confident individualism, which was a central feature of youth culture, is still prized by all generations who grew up in the latter half of the 20th century. This binds the pioneering vanguard to all younger generations, rather than to today’s oldest old, bred into conformity, obedience and communal co-operation.

It’s likely that – as with the copycat behaviour of younger boomers in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s – most of the 20 traits now changing ageing will intensify in older people in the next few decades. There are signs among today’s very young that later in this century some of today’s new-old attitudes may fade out, and these are discussed where relevant.  But the individualism which ripped generations apart in the Sixties will almost certainly endure.


Sceptics say individualism has made modern society selfish and uncaring. It can have that effect, as several of this book’s chapters confirm. But history shows that it’s also one of the factors that most distinguishes the ‘wonderful’ oldie from the beaten old couple on the road-sign. The new old are proving that there’s a big difference between society’s opinion of how older people should behave, and how it’s in their best interest to behave.

The weapon they used in the 1960s was individualism, and this book argues that today individualism is creating a new kind of liberated, sceptical, combative – but so much happier – oldie.


Gale, Richard P. et al. ‘Depiction of elderly and disabled people on road traffic signs: international comparison.’ British Medical Journal Vol.327, 20 December 2003 (1456-7)

busy” lives: European Commission Survey: Walker, Alan and Maltby, Tony. Ageing Europe. Rethinking Ageing Series. Open University Press, 1997, p.55

  REVIEWS OF THE FIRST DRAFT OF  20 Reasons You Won’t Grow Old Like This

“I was trying to find something helpfully critical to say. But it was very hard because I think that you have done a lovely job… It is a delightful book … a great and timely book”. C.H. (Co-founder of the London Business School and Professor (1978-94); Chairman of the Royal Society of Arts 1987-89 and consistently in the top ten of ‘Thinkers 50′, the most influential living management thinkers)

“I liked it all – the order and arrangement, the chapter titles, that terrific cover (which indeed is essential to the whole book), especially the occasional touches of humor that slip in, the use of real people/names/experiences to illustrate your points … You use examples of both and the people are either well known or easily identified.” P.W-J (Ph.D. Psychology, USA)

“Insightful and amazingly well-researched…. You have covered everything … I could identify with a lot of what you’ve written. I liked the link with the couple at the beginning of each chapter”. W.P. (Newly retired teacher and a Relate counsellor).

“I found it riveting, especially the further I got into it … It is a major contribution to the issues that face all of us as we move into the next phase.” G.R. (Retiring PA to the Managing Director of Boots)

“I particularly enjoyed Chap. 11 – “Enjoying earning money and working at your own thing.” P.B.(Former RAF pilot now aviation consultant in USA)

“I loved its positivity, reinforcement of life, choices laid out logically + manageable goals. Excellent to go back to the logo at the start of each chapter.” J.W.(Retired speech therapist; daily grandchild carer despite severe arthritis)

“As for Ch.9 (‘Glad to be gay’) I found the whole contents of it very informative and yet very fair and correct … easy to read, witty, and strangely comforting without being condescending.” R.M. (Gay; chef)

“How much I enjoyed and identified with your book. I have no criticism. … I was encouraged by the medical information re lungs/drugs/exercise – will now GET BACK in the Gym, and continue with my Can’t Sing Choir exercises”.M.C. (Public sector home care organiser)

“Rather to my surprise I found Ch 7 (‘An end to illegitimacy’) moving and the info on gay love a very interesting social document.” J.W. (Author and journalist)

“I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of the redefinition of work and retirement.” J.R. L. (Retired Air Commodore, County Councillor)

“I was very impressed by the amount of research you’d carried out on the topic”. S.W.(Retiring consultant geriatrician)

“It’s an outstanding piece of work that should be read by all MPs, think tanks and so forth. .. One of the best things about the book is undoubtedly its balanced approach .. I’d say you pretty much covered the ground on your range of topics … Healthcare is such a huge topic and having spent large chunks of my life in and around the NHS at levels from psychiatric nurse to adviser to the CEO of the DoH I think you managed to define the issues very well. B.A. (Retired Creative Advertising Executive with J.Walter Thompson



  1. Rupert Wiseman Says:

    Many people today beyond the traditional retirement age are free from financial constraints of previous generations and future ones. This may be a temporary situation . There has been an unprecedented redistribution of wealth, through house price inflation, from the young to the old. With consumption being the opium of the people, the under 30’s seem happy with their lot. I’m just going to keep on working, when I see Rupert Murdoch on the telly I don’t see an evil megalomaniac press baron getting his comeuppance but a octogenarian with fire in his belly and plenty more to give.

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