Still dancing, my mother pioneers a quickstep to ageing
Recently I went to a party in a converted warehouse in Shoreditch, the once artsy but now expensive area of east London. The music was body-vibratingly loud, overseen by a couple of 20-somethings spinning vinyl on the decks. The guests were an eclectic bunch, dressed in skinny jeans, heels, glittery tops — and that was just the men.
While pouring myself some cheap Prosecco, I struck up a conversation with a man sporting peroxide-white hair. Although the noise levels meant I caught one word in three, I managed to hear the question I have become accustomed to at these parties.
“So, how do you know Bev?” he asked, jigging up and down to the music. At that point, Bev, the host, dressed entirely in gold — stilettos, matching pencil skirt and top — wandered over and put her arm around me. “She’s my mum,” I informed the guest.
My mother came to mind when reading about the 70-something Polish couple reported to have danced the night away until 5am at WetYourSelf, a house and techno party at Fabric nightclub on the edge of the City of London.
Jacob Hansen, the promoter and DJ, told the Evening Standard newspaper that the couple had two tequila shots and “she gave me a high-five”. Apparently the pair enjoy spending their Saturday nights visiting clubs in their home city of Warsaw and arrived at the venue while visiting their London-dwelling daughter.
That this was greeted with excitement on social media as “heart-warming” made me feel sad. Is it so weird that pensioners want to listen to loud music and dance? Mick Jagger is still going strong at 72, after all. The average age of headline acts at music festivals has increased, according to music streaming service Spotify. In 1996 it was 31; last year it was 43.
The startled reception to the Polish ravers is evidence that social lives are segregated by age groups. Sociologists Gunhild Hagestad and Peter Uhlenberg have argued that western societies have institutionalised the phases of life, with young people in education, the middle aged at work and the elderly in retirement homes.
Yet this three-stage life is looking outdated. In an era of increased longevity, people are experimenting — not just in their social lives but also in their family and working lives. Andrew Scott, co-author of the new The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, believes that in the future different generations will blend.
“In a three-stage life we have a sort of age apartheid where young mix together, middle age mix together and old mix together — but with multiple stages we will see much more age mixing as things become less stratified.”
At both ends of the spectrum, young and old are experimenting out of necessity. While there has been much hype about co-living among 20-somethings, propelled by the likes of the start-up, Common, baby boomers were already doing it. As part of the “Golden Girls” phenomenon — named after the 1980s sitcom — growing numbers of pensioners are returning to their hippy roots, embracing communal living to save money and find companionship.
I have come to see my mum as a pioneer. Like many others, who perhaps hoped to take it easy in their 60s, 70s and even 80s, she is still working to top up her pension. (She bought her Shoreditch flat 20 years ago, before the bankers moved into the area.)
Careers in the future will be less a climb up a ladder, more of a zigzag. If employers can get over their ageism, this mixture of experience and youth should foster innovation in the workplace. In return, older workers have to lose attachment to status.
A busy life has benefits. This week a report Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience found that “busyness” — a proxy for being engaged with life — could keep adults aged 50-89 mentally fit.
This new longer life is not straightforward. I have had to abandon my own prejudices about my ageing mother. Friends have called me “Saffy” after the straight and earnest daughter in Absolutely Fabulous, the TV series being made into a movie released in summer. Yet the pay-off can be fun; there may even be dancing.