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For all we know the elderly people on the road sign may be furious with each other, but to the outside world they’re a picture of self-control. People their age in 1981 were well aware of the dangers of attracting gossip by ‘washing dirty linen in public’. For most of their lives there had been strong reasons to avoid self-exposure of any kind.

In the 19th century and well into the 20th oppressive social conditioning began early in life. Almost anyone born before World War II in an advanced country had been brought up to suppress anger, envy or hurt. Raised from early childhood to show respect to adults by never annoying them or drawing attention to themselves, most children accepted that unless they were very sure of a warm reception they should remember to be ‘seen and not heard’. Even when cosseted there must be no bad behaviour. 

 Surprisingly perhaps, considering that before state welfare was introduced child mortality was still high, children were rarely coddled. Instead they were kept obedient through fear, force and – inexplicably to modern parents – withdrawal of food. Confinement at home, school or orphanage, with dry bread and water, or no food at all, was thought the ideal way to keep discipline absolute. Complaints and tantrums were crushed, and even story-books for infants were full of terrifying figures eager to punish them.


Living in fear of retribution did not pass with coming of age. For centuries the state-approved grip of religious moralising had cast lifelong shame on actions or attitudes which few in the modern world find remarkable today. Such ‘scandals’ as single motherhood, adultery, homosexuality, divorce, conscription-dodging and blasphemy were subject to punitive laws and must be concealed or white-washed with a lie. The pleasure taken by others in uncovering a family secret’stifled self-disclosure, and could wreck job prospects and social mobility among people only marginally connected to the offender. This culture of moral white-washing and emotional toughness prevailed in the modern world throughout the first half of the 20th century.

 Nor was weakness of spirit in the face of one of these family disgraces admired. Self-pity was a sin, and a weak character was judged almost as harshly as a bad or ‘loose’ one. Even in Mediterranean countries where feelings were frank and dramatic, self-control in company was thought a virtue.

 Masking feelings was for the rich and influential less a matter of fear or virtue than good form. This apparent lofty self-discipline, with its refusal to disclose, introspect or show emotion, often veiled scandalous personal habits.


 Secrecy itself became a virtue in all fighting countries between 1939 and 1945. National security demanded silence on all aspects of warfare, from metalwork in factories to details of mobilisation and mysterious barbed-wire enclosures or bunkers springing up in rural woodland. This kind of discretion came naturally to generations who had lived through the First World War. They were also well used to the drill of ‘keeping a stiff upper lip’, ‘pulling yourself together’, ‘getting a grip’, ‘keeping calm and carrying on’, and recognising that there were always people worse off than yourself. They knew that bereavement, sudden life-changes, shortages and inconveniences made putting on a brave face a must for everyone. Silence extended tp the threat of death. Glasses lifted to ‘absent friends’ usually dared anyone to comment further.

 But they were also gifted in keeping family secrets. During the war years morality, and especially sexual morality, secretly took a nose-dive behind the brave face of endurance. Lovers were taken to ease the stress of waiting for news from abroad, and of being close to combat abroad. Babies were born at dates which made husbands suspicious, and given up for adoption if they couldn’t be passed off as ‘legitimate’. Unobtainable goods were obtained from dubious sources. Secrecy and shame were constantly challenged to breaking point, and it would be another twenty years before a younger generation laughed them out of existence.

 During that post-war period, whatever their actual behaviour had been between 1939 and 1945, for most people the age of the road-sign couple fear of public contempt, of exposing a soft underbelly or of airing violent feelings remained as strong as ever.


 Many, in fact, had simply never acquired the words to express these vulnerabilities. Grouchy British broadcaster Gilbert Harding (born 1907), for example agreed in 1960 to appear on BBC television’s ‘Face to Face’ – a programme which gave well-known people a chance to talk about themselves. Harding had no idea of quite how personal the questions would be. Eventually, battered by the interviewer’s probing, he shocked older listeners by breaking down into choked weeping:

My bad manners and bad temper are quite indefensible … I’m almost unfit to live with … I’m profoundly lonely…I should be very glad to be dead.”

 Harding’s torment included a fear of the law: the presenter John Freeman later admitted he had been trying to ‘out’ him, and homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. When the humiliated man died suddenly a few months later there were rumours of suicide. These were probably false: Harding was a sick man.  But suicide was then illegal, too.


 The reforms of the 1960s would remove much of the need for fear of self-exposure. The Suicide Act of 1961 decriminalised self-killing, the Abortion Act of 1967 allowed medically supervised terminations and the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 legalised homosexual practice in private for consenting adults.

 People directly affected by these issues applauded the changes, but many saw only licensed immorality. It was too late for them to shed the ingrained conditioning of their youth.

However, raised from birth with these and other liberating laws in place, the new old of the world’s richest nations have also benefited from transparency in officialdom, social mobility, transgender operations, acceptance of equal female intelligence, greater control over birth and death, waning of religious moral pressures, welfare handouts, racial equality, humane sentencing and prison reforms. These are just some of the freedoms that were unavailable to the vast majority of people born pre-war.


The religious and legal restraints on natural human emotions endured in so-called civilised communities were not the cause of secrecy and inhibition. To the suffering of people the age of the road-sign couple was added a sinister biological theory.

 The late 19th-century theory of eugenics (popularly known as the science of ‘bad blood’) was so officially approved that it earned its founder Francis Galton – a cousin of Charles Darwin – a knighthood. The term eugenic simply meant ‘well born’, and Galton’s aim was to create more healthy, intelligent and capable human beings.

But Galton’s ideology not only allowed, but frankly stated, that certain races were irredeemably genetically inferior. He advised that

The striking results of an evil inheritance have already forced themselves so far on the popular mind …. without any marks of disapproval from others, at the yearly output by unfit parents of weakly children who are constitutionally incapable of growing up into serviceable citizens, and who are a serious encumbrance to the nation.”

 Influential followers eagerly publicised this “degrading” effect on the status of the population as a whole, and quoted Galton’s researches to claim that such handicaps as mental deficiency or hereditary blindness should be selected out by sterilisation.

As this idea spread, any family member with a visible physical or mental defect was felt to be a disgrace, with mental illness a special stigma. When the census officer asked if there was an ‘imbecile’ in the dwelling the answer was invariably ‘no’. Children with slow mental development were kept hidden away from neighbours, or not acknowledged as the family’s blood offspring.

It took little for local authorities to remove a child or adult to a ‘lunatic asylum’, and many such institutions were built and filled beyond their capacity with people who today would be accepted and helped in day clinics. Release was rare, even for the rich, as the general neglect in asylums bred regression rather than rehabilitation.

 Nor was release from institutional care much welcomed by families embarrassed by the stigma. As with any taint of blood from a race judged inferior, the victim was air-brushed from memory by destroying photos and documents.

 Eugenic theory, praised by Hitler in Mein Kampf reached its all-time low in the ethnic and medical Nazi purges of 1939-45, and is now discredited. But during the war it was backed by such distinguished figureheads as economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynes, an active member of the Eugenics Society who latterly served on its board of governors, warned in carefully phrased terms that caring for the most helpless and unproductive was an unnecessary drain on resources.

Despite an easing of race relations among servicemen fighting as allies during World War II, mixed socialising and intermarriage were still largely taboo, and living and working within a predominantly white community remained uncomfortable for people of a visibly different ethnic origin. If these immigrants were rich, or ambitious job-seekers, they might try to blend in by paying for plastic surgery to alter unwanted facial features. This procedure, which became fashionable after successes with grossly disfigured World War I veterans, was gradually becoming less detectable.


The socially-induced hypocrisy and conflicted attitudes of rich-world adults born in the late 19th or early 20th century did not prepare their children for the emotional openness of the 1960s. If public figures like Gilbert Harding couldn’t cope, what hope was there for young people whose parents, well into late middle age imposed their values on them ‘for their own good’?

Despite the upheaval of their lives during two world wars and a recession, the religious, legal, criminal and biological restraints of their youth were still firmly in place. And most parents among the victorious allies saw no reason to train their children into any other set of values and beliefs.

 Yet these parents did admit that their children, born in the late 1920s or the 1930s, had lost the years of carefree youth they should have enjoyed. The grim preoccupations of war had tended, in Europe at least, to put childhood pleasures on hold.

Stella Rimington, for example, born in 1934 and Britain’s first female Director-General of MI5, says her parents told her that “emotion was a weaken ss” and that “hard work and devotion to duty were the most important things”. She admits to growing up an “anxious and pessimistic child”. Ex-politician Brian Walden (1932) remembers being turned off a half-empty bus because “workers” would need to get on. Even Queen Elizabeth II (1926) and her sister Margaret (1930) were confined to Windsor Castle until Elizabeth was old enough to be given war work as a uniformed driver.

 The 1930s-born are, from the viewpoint of ageing in the 21st century, a very special generation. Bestriding the cusp of two different world orders they retain many of their parents’ values and commitments. But the old unquestioning patriotism, economising, duty to authorities, trust in the doctor and community spirit is often diluted or distrusted.

In many European cities children were evacuated to rural strangers to protect them physically from bombing raids. They received little tenderness or explanation, and were told to be grateful for a change they did not want.  Many watched their younger siblings, born in the 1940s, grow up with attention, freedoms and frivolities they had never known. These mixed emotions and loyalties are still evident as they age, making some of today’s older people firmly set in an early 20th-century mould and others traditionalist but cynical.

 Others had a relatively stress-free childhood but resented their parents whom they saw as disciplinarian and remote. In the late 1950s and 1960s they quickly sided with such 1930s-born icons as James Dean, Elvis Presley, David Hockney, Germaine Greer, Brigitte Bardot, Bill Wyman and Mary Quant.  Some enjoyed a belated childhood in their late twenties or thirties, snatching at the fun they had missed and letting suppressed emotions run wild, aligning themselves with 1940s-born boomers as founder-members of a youth culture that would unites all generations of young people born in the latter part of the 20th century.   

These 30s-born forerunners of the youth culture of the 1960s were not consciously making history. They just felt released from the grey, dangerous and hating world in which grew up. Artist Peter Blake (1932), for example, had been evacuated as a boy from his home under an air-raid path to London. His 1967 sleeve for the Beatles’ album ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ shows, like much of his art, glum and lonely-looking figures stuck awkwardly out of place.



 Most of the 1940s-borns, now over sixty years old, had a very different start to their lives from the war children. Babies born during or in the aftermath of the conflict could hardly be told to keep a stiff upper lip, and memories among this boomer-vanguard generation, some of the trail-blazers and hell-raisers of 1960s youth movements and fashions are muddled and dim. Throughout the allied fighting countries of Europe, America, Canada, Africa, Australia and new Zealand, and their opponents, violent emotions were in the air without being properly understood.

Those living close to scenes of warfare were specially affected. In London 1945 Maureen Waller describes a three year-old boy, found covered in soot in the ruins of a bombed house, saying as he was washed, “Nasty, dirty, noisy chimney man”. Today some his age still feel a tingle of excitement if they hear the same sirens that were used to warn of air-raids. Some connect the sound with cuddles and attention, or knowing that bad things were happening to some people, somewhere. And the enemy? Some toddlers thought germs and Germans were the same thing.

 Parents’ passions, fears and betrayals were not discussed with their children, but later very many would realise that their birth had not been the most important thing in their parents’ lives, or even the most joyful. This age-group’s early years had been rocked by partings, death, desertion or marriage breakdown. During the war divorce rates rose in Britain. By 1945 divorce rates had risen by 337%, and in the USA escalated further with post-war marriage break-ups.

 The ending of World War II saw a dramatic birth-boom, after decades of falling birth-rates in all modern societies. The start of this baby-boom is officially put at 1945 in Britain and 1946 in America. But birth rates had been rising steadily in these countries since 1940. Questions on how this disruption of the former age spectrum should be socially and economically managed had been occupying the minds of reformers throughout the latter years of the war.


 In all reconstructing countries politicians, educationalists and health professionals had – with different emphases – worried about future of their oncoming youngest generation. They welcomed the birth boom but saw it in different lights.

 In Britain, plans had been in place since 1942 for a welfare state which would fund and care for all citizens ‘from the cradle to the grave’. No such earlier proposal had to effected change, but by 1945 Beveridge’s proposal was endorsed by all political parties, shocked at the poor standards of living and nutrition uncovered by necessary investigations into recruitment, war work and home security.

At the cradle end the new Family Allowances Act restricted payments to mothers, not fathers, and where possible singled out the most needy through schools and NHS (National Health Service) clinics. Education being compulsory, there was free milk for all state-school pupils, and free mid-day meals for the worst-off. The focus was on the child, not on general family welfare, as parents who asked for direct state help soon learned. Orange juice was distributed free to infants, but only if they were brought into clinics.

Infant welfare schemes went much further in America, where the famous paediatrician Dr Benjamin Spock suddenly and completely changed his views on child-rearing. As the war ended he advised parents to drop what he called the “strict and inflexible” methods of his own earlier wartime book on child management. Instead, he now favoured “self-demand” feeding for babies, and letting pre-school children to indulge their natural tastes. This completely upended his previous advice to feed only by the clock, ignore a crying baby, and start routines and discipline early.

 Spock’s 1946 bestseller Baby and Child Care swiftly  influenced healthcare workers and parents across the developed world, including parents who did not buy books, but heard about the novel new methods via the radio. On the whole mothers went along with them, seeing them as yet another facet of peacetime freedom and restructuring. Older, highly-disciplined  and relatively neglected war children were astonished, however, and not best pleased at the doting attention their younger siblings were given.

Birth-boom infants could not have grasped how different their upbringing was from that of siblings who had been force-fed dried eggs, Spam (tinned processed meat) and tinned herrings, and told to leave clean plates because heroes far more important than themselves – especially those on convoy ships – had risked their lives so they could eat.  Rationing persisted in Britain and other countries until 1952, but even amid the greatest deprivation the boomer vanguard saw its comforts and choices being put well to the fore.

Dr Spock claimed that he only wanted infants to develop more naturally. But the new child-centred regimes went way beyond food and sleep. They made young children very secure and demanding in their feelings and appetites, so that by the time they started school they were used to getting warm sympathy for their feelings and whims. One of Spock’s colleagues would later recall sleeping in the sitting-room because Spock’s young son Mike “did not feel like” giving up his bedroom. The doctor accepted this, saying he “respected” Mike’s view. The visitor thought it shocking.

But – and there is more on this in Reasons 3 and 5 –  many 1930s- born children, now nearing school-leaving age, had not shaken off the hatred of the war years. Researchers found the age group worryingly aggressive. Boys were choosing any kind of military service over staying on at school past fourteen. Girls were often hardened to horror. 1930s-born Jean Tansley says she had been fourteen when the Women’s Junior Air Corps showed her how to assassinate Nazis if they invaded.

 “It didn’t seem right for well-brought up girls to kill without making a noise – cheese wire was a favourite. We were taught to creep up behind the enemy and jerk his neck suddenly with the wire.”

 But after a bomber plane raked a local infants’ school with gunfire she says, “I could kill a German – I would willingly have done it.”


 At state primary schools new projects such as ‘child drama’ were intended to stimulate feeling and imagination, instead of pumping in facts. Centenarian Rose Hacker, then a school teacher, remembers:

 I was privileged to .. play an active part in a revolution in education. For a time, after Labour’s 1945 General Election victory, the old authoritarian regime in primary schools was gradually transformed and in the 1950s London’s County Council schools were full of and nurtured creativity, encouraged curiosity and thrived on musicality.”

 Although these activities released under-sevens from the regimented rows of desks which cramped self-expression, the drama was imitative and ‘musicality’ usually meant in those days singing along together. The wild imagination which would turn music into a conduit for raw emotion and a catalyst for rebellion by the early 1950s had barely begun to spread from America into the rest of the modern world. Elvis Presley (born 1935) and his black ‘soul’ inspiration Little Richard (1932) were only just out of high school.

 The story of emotional self-exposure is just one chapter in – or one reason for – the post-war cultural shift from repression, convention and dutiful cooperation to the immediate expression of feelings as a primal need and right.  Despite weighty European investment in the early childhood of the 1940s-born, and the desire to see them react spontaneously instead of turning into puppets-on-strings like the Hitler youth, the new generation – now the new old – was actually manipulated into greed and a relentless focus on ME.

 In America the Dr Spock generation surged in self-expression simply because that country’s economy, being far less challenged by domestic war damage than any European country, surged ahead in production and opportunity. For while in Britain and other countries radical new welfare systems would be priorities in post-war reconstruction, youngsters in the less war-damaged USA parents were encouraged to give their children every kind of treat in order to stimulate spending. 

So acceptable was the baby boom to the state that one historian thinks it seemed “almost a Keynesian strategy to excite consumerism”.  Much of the USA’s production – from Walt Disney’s films to cute clothes, juke boxes and coca-cola – was geared to school-age children. The juke boxes played gramophone records about boy-girl love, to rhythms few adults enjoyed.  Slowly but inexorably – because the population was now youth-heavy and the baby-boom generation would always, by force of numbers, dominate market interests, youth was elbowing out the war veterans and the old. 

 Just as Spock’s 1946 Baby and Child Care depicts the revolution in child-rearing by comparing it with earlier practice, so another American book, a 1945 novel called The Catcher in the Rye, shows how 30s-borns in the USA began to express themselves in a way that excluded older people. Holden Caulfield, the sixteen-year-old hero and narrator of Salinger’s book, confesses on the first page how much his parents would hate any family exposure:

My parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father.”

 In Europe the longing of children to see and share the indulged lifestyle of American kids worried many parents and teachers. Some tried to shield their children from the influence, which by the late 1950s seemed to them sensual, sloppy and extravagant. They hoped American youth music, slang, sex-conscious language and garish clothes would stay across the Atlantic.

Officials outside America also disapproved. When Elvis first performed in Britain, cameramen were ordered to keep their lenses off his trousers. But as the 1950s progressed, and young girls screamed and fainted with excitement over pop stars’ explicit gyrations, it was clear that the USA’s youth-culture invasion could not be halted. And parents were shocked at how effortlessly their children – including many war-children who had grown up on jerky ballroom dancing – took to jiving and crooning. The ‘music and movement’ classes that superseded the formal singing and stilted drama lessons had put children in touch with their bodies and the way certain movements could reveal natural, and individual, feelings.


 The arrival of a self-centred youth culture which rejected any sense of preparing for adult life seemed a slap in the face to the older people who had – often against their better judgement – put this first post-war generation first. Life for their children seemed simply about discovering their ‘true selves’.

Whereas most older adults had been told to ‘grow up’ and drop delusions of self-importance, young people were making these very character faults the centre of their lives. They were, as had never been generally true in any previous younger generation, openly living from their inmost feelings. Where was self-respect? Imagination and individualism had cemented the belief that respecting yourself was learning your deepest feelings, needs and visions.

  In the USA this was just fine. The new generation was growing up innovative and confident.  Terry Gilliam (1940), later a graphic designer on ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’, can only have flourished through a lack of parental repression. His childhood offered little else but licence to be himself. Living in a Minnesota backwater (and using a two-hole outdoor latrine in icy winters) he had almost nothing to stimulate his imagination, as his teachers said he must. He says he achieved this purely by wireless sounds. By the time his family left the area he had never heard of beatniks or drugs, but he already saw himself as “a Messiah”.

There were limits to America’s indulgence of its young. Most adults did not understand or trust the irrational mind-opening forces that from the 1960s would trawl hidden parts of the mind for greater self-expression. Mesmerising patterns, synchronised lighting, haunting or rhythmic music, dancing, swaying, images of sexual activity or violence, even literature about them, could have a psychedelic – literally soul-baring – effect.

One of the dangers was that psychedelia drew in older and sometimes unstable people who had suppressed their imaginations for most of their lives. Too old to have been channelled at school into safe outlets for self-expression, they found the beat or hippy scene a haven from rationality; from the soulless boredom of their lives, or from apathethic mature adults who wanted  more consumer products, more pleasure, and less involvement in politics, especially single issue reforms and campaigns. (See Reason 3.)

1967 Paul McCartney (1942) reflected in his song ‘When I’m Sixty-four’ on how things might one day be for himself. Back then, the outlook had seemed depressingly drab; pottering round the house, knitting by the fire, going for a ride on Sunday morning to keep Sunday special. His father played in a band. Paul saw no magic in this, perhaps because the concept of finding and creating magic through expressing individual imagination was, during recession and wartime, the privilege of a rich or eccentric few.


The main outcome of youth-culture soul-baring was not rock mania, activism, drug culture, primal therapy or mysticism, but the elevation of feelings to non-negotiable statements of personal identity. The right to self-exposure only became a mission when individuals – not all young but identifying with the new youth – consciously seized on any means of getting in touch with the real needs of Me and putting self-expression in charge.

 They have passed this on to all living post-war generations. For most children born after 1950, spilling out their emotions and fears would be normal behaviour, with sympathetic child psychoanalysis available if crippling hurts or violence emerged. Many kinds of therapy were used with young people in the late 1960s, but they aimed increasingly at rooting out old hurts and misguided ideas, and making them feel good about themselves rather than needing to change.

 Today, ‘emotional literacy’ is thought so important in childhood that hundreds of pages of guidance on taking classes were sent out in 2005 to British teachers. Topics for class debate included ‘good to be me’ and ‘getting on with falling out’.

 But for very many war-babies and baby boomers the inability or refusal of older people to ‘open up’ or ‘share’ made them sure that only young people knew how to simply be and feel. Most older people hardly seemed to know what that sort of freedom meant.

 In 1987, six years after the road sign appeared, an Irish survey on perceptions of the elderly asked teenagers to pick adjectives from a list describing how they saw older people. Two-thirds had no regular contact with one, but most ticked mainly negative images, with ‘difficult to please’, ‘demanding’ and ‘rigidly conservative’ coming top.

 Psychologists said this was to be expected; that bitter memories and festering resentment were usually the biggest obstacles to a positive outlook in later life, but that trying to eradicate them from the old was hopeless. Any glimpse into a suppressed inner self, wrote psychologist Erik Erikson, only gave them “identity crises”, making them “argue with themselves and with others about what they have been, or should, or could have been”. Therapy did not overcome “self-disgust”, or stop them “doctoring” their memories, altering them to show their feelings or status had been better than they actually were.

 During the 1960s a new theory of ‘disengagement’ would advise older people to ‘detach’ from active life to avoid external hurts. This theory only lasted only a decade, and the switch to socialising schemes that followed it made no headway if the theme was emotional exploration. Older people saw this as giving others a stick to beat them with, or as pointlessly exposing feelings they’d struggled for decades to conceal.

 Yet a legacy of emotional repression still works against happiness for those who will not talk out old guilts or grievances before strangers. Some ninety-pluses still have no intention of raking up the past, and prefer the comforts of cheery activities and outings, or absorbing projects in which they can temporarily forget themselves. Never having admired either psychoanalysis or individualism, they would rather not stand out of the crowd as weak, self-pitying or a freak.

 For the new old, however, individualism had the effect of making All About Me the most interesting topic possible – and the more wacky the confession the more unique the individual. Today, the concept of self-respect no longer means acting with dignity, but literally respecting the self as nature just has created it. After Germaine Greer (1939), was savaged for an uncool performance in Celebrity Big Brother and walked out after five days – remained convinced that she was the only celebrity acting normally.

 Individualism is by definition divisive. It does not build co-operation or community relations. Nor does showing your feelings necessarily bind you to others. When self-respect means respecting your own inmost impulses, rather than projecting a respectable image, compromise is considered hypocrisy, and relationships break up fast.

By the end of the 1960s many passionate young marriages and friendships had ended. The Beatles, united only by their love of making music, did not last the decade together. Once they began to concentrate on finding their own unique identities, co-operation gradually dwindled and died. Yet after outgrowing their early ambitions each flourished independently and without looking back with regret.  

 Older people who are willing to try today’s ‘validation’ therapy may find they can come to terms with painful memories and regrets they’ve never dealt with. Validation encourages them to forgive and accept themselves. The new old will have far less need for this kind of help. ‘Hurting’ has long been intolerable to them; emotional grievances just have to be aired and shared, using the language of emotional literacy. The difference between today’s oldest old and the 1930s-borns now in their eighties is evident.  Many of these war children flinch from the image of old age they find imposed on them, and imitate younger ways of living, letting it all hang out and valuing their past as at least ‘I did it My Way’.

Yet the emotional honesty of today’s post-war-born new old has not ruled out neurosis in the tidy way Erikson hoped it might. Instead, it allows conflicting emotions to co-exist. The new youth of the 1950s and 1960s recognised and welcomed this. They fed on the confused emotional yearning of 1930s-born pop stars like James Dean and Elvis Presley (1935). Various therapies would help John Lennon (1940) would find popularity and profit in singing out his haunting memories, ideals, ecstasies and fears.

 Despite reaching retirement with a competing clamour of powerful feelings and a more-than nodding acquaintance with their ‘demons’, the new old have on the whole developed a feel-good sense of self. But the flipside of emotional openness and acceptance of ME may be thought less desirable.


 Most people who grow old in the 21st century will need no help in shrugging off remorse. Few of today’s new old suffer from self-disgust, and their hunger for confession has sanctified a belief that the odd slip-up in life – even the odd scandal – creates a unique, interesting individual. The ‘black sheep’ of the early 20th century has become the family pet. This is obvious in their open approach to family research, where unlike past older generations they tend to show sympathy for the cruelties of the past and chuckle at, rather than squirm or try to gloss over the human lapses and inadequacies they uncover in their forebears.

 Take the lavish period-style funeral recently arranged by Mary Halliwell for her great-great-great-grand uncle John Horwood. Eighteen-year old Horwood had been hanged in 1821 for murdering a girl who rejected his attentions. When Ms Halliwell learned that his remains were still in a cupboard at Bristol University, his body having been dissected after the hanging in front of eighty students, she asked to give it decent burial.

 People the age of the road-sign couple would have found this exposure and display of a family secret astounding. Today’s oldest old may also feel uneasy about it, remembering that in their younger days only the only appropriate response was a hush-up. Secretary for State John Profumo (b.1915) was in 1963 caught sleeping with a call-girl who was also sleeping with a Russian spy. In tune with the handling of scandal in his age group he instantly resigned, then vanished into London’s deprived East End to do voluntary work for the rest of his life.

 Few people born post-war would adopt this craven attitude. Instead, displaying despair, fury, jealousy, disloyalty, vindictiveness or admitting to red-haze violence is not only acceptable but can bring cash rolling in. Reticence and reserve bring no street credibility. What is wanted is transparency and accountability – in private as well as working life. Due partly to the new meaning of self-respect as respect for Me rather than for community values or political or religious correctness, modern society tends to accept human passions and to pardon error. Disgrace lies less in wrongdoing or looking a fool than in pretending to be more than ordinarily human.

 Of course there are many exceptions to this. Some boomers have always insisted that they are ‘private’ people, and taken pains to seem spotless in character. The more general picture, however, since ‘most’ means over fifty percent, is of frankly confessing, with blow-by-blow details also revealed – for a fee. 

 In 2005 a newspaper featured British “bogeymen” who’d bounced back into public life after major disgrace. They included Jeffrey Archer (1940), David Blunkett (1947), Neil Hamilton (1948) and Ken Livingstone (1945).  Any rich nation could come up with such a list, from America’s Bill Clinton (1946) to Canada’s magnate Conrad Black (1944), accused in 2007 of stealing sixty million dollars from Hollinger International shareholders to fund personal luxury. Chicago justice put him in prison, but Black denied his career had “imploded”. “I don’t think so. I was departing the conventional newspaper world anyway … when justice is done in Chicago, I will be back ..”

Nobody doubted that once out he’d survive, even profit from it. Many of today’s new old show the same striking lack of self-disgust as these ‘bogeymen’, all affirming a dramatic change from Profumo’s self-abasement. The days of giving oneself a beating-up have passed. 


 For American gerontologist Royda Crose acceptance of fallibility and disgrace is just what is needed in later life to recover from misfortune, disease and distress. While “it used to be said that people needed to be hardy for old age”, she says it’s far better to be “like Bozo the clown who pops up whenever he’s knocked down” than the “hardy oak”. Clownish and undignified as this outcome may be, it is “the real me” feeling that Erikson achieved with children, but believed barely possible in old age.

 This phenomenon partly explains why so many of today’s new old often seem childish. But however childish spontaneity may be – and wearing your heart on your sleeve is essentially naïve – it is active and positive. The new old, like the wonderful old things of past generations, will challenge the young as they grow old, but in the ways of the young, not from a superior stance.

In the past certain old people were called ‘wonderful’ because they showed oncoming generations that successful survival was possible. They might also be wonderful simply for their rare longevity. Today’s new old will be remarkable not only for the twenty traits that set them apart from the great majority of past aged generations, but for tenaciously claiming membership of the post-war culture they helped to found. 

Knowing and showing your feelings with fearless indifference to the judgement of others is a good way of surviving old age. It’s one of the traits that served in any past era as a successful coping mechanism. Wouldn’t we prefer to see a road sign showing older people holding up their heads, happy with themselves and their ongoing place in  society?  Indeed, shouldn’t we agree with Nietzsche’s maverick 19th-century view that everyone would benefit from being self-ish in this way?

 For what does one have to atone most? For one’s modesty, for having failed to listen to one’s most personal requirements; for having mistaken oneself; for having underestimated oneself; for having lost a good ear for one’s instincts: this kind of reverence for oneself revenges itself through every kind of deprivation … One never afterward forgives oneself for this lack of genuine egoism …” 


Quotes and references

Harding: Grenfell, Stephen (Ed). Gilbert Harding, by his friends. Andre Deutsch: London, 1961, pp.32, 96, 93

Eugenics. Galton, Francis. Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into its Laws and Consequences, London, Macmillan & Co. and New York [1869]1892 pp.x,

Stella Rimington, interviewed by Valerie Grove in SAGA Magazine, July 2004

Brian Walden: Interviewed in ‘A Point of View’ BBC Radio 4 13 May 2005

Waller, Maureen. London 1945. John Murray 2004, p.28

Wartime divorce: Storey, P. Nuptiality and marriage dissolution in England and Wales in the 20th century : a time period and birth cohort analysis. University of London, 1981, p.100; statistics from Office of National Statistics

Spock, Benjamin. Baby and Child Care. [1946] New English Library edition 1969, pp.1, 53 and 275-6

Bloom, Lynn Z. Dr Spock. Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill, 1972, p.91

Choosing the military: Looking Ahead: A Plan for Youth, September 1942. London, Central Committee on Post-War Reconstruction (Conservative and Unionist Party), p.6

Jean Tansley, The Sunday Times, 24 April 2005

Hacker, Rose. London, Camden New Journal, 9 November 2006

Keynesian strategy. Brake, Michael. Comparative youth culture: the sociology of youth cultures and youth subcultures in America Britain and Canada . Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985 p.172.

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. [1945] Little, Brown and Company, 1979 p.1

Gilliam, Terry. Gilliam on Gilliam. London, Faber, 1999, pp.3-6.

Emotional literacy: ‘Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning’.Report in The Times, 28 November 2005

Attitudes of Young People to Ageing and the Elderly.’ Report No.16, March 1987. National Council for the Aged, Dublin, p.20

Erikson, Erik H. A way of looking at things (papers 1930 to 1980). Ed. Stephen Schlein. New York W.W. Norton. 1995, pp.640-1, 262, 608 and 675-6

Cumming, E. and Henry, W.E. Growing Old: The Process of Disengagement. Basic Books, New York, 1961. See also Luke, Helen M. Old Age: Journey Into Simplicity. Parabola Books, New `York, 1987


Life expectancy: Laslett, P. ‘The emergence of the Third Age.’ Ageing and Society 7 (2) 1987, p.141

Halliwell, Mary. The Times, 14 April 2011

The Bogeymen who returned”: The Sunday Times, 22 May 2005

Conrad Black: Letter replying to a leading article in The Times, 22 March 2007. Sentenced 10 December 2007 Released 2012

Crose, Royda, Why women live longer than men – and what men can learn from them. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1997, p.146

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will To Power. [1870-1888]Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale.( Eds) Commentary by Walter Kaufmann, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968, p.486, (§918)

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