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The unhealthy cult of ageing

15 Jun 2011, 16:59

Published: 15 Jun 2011 16:59 GMT+02:00

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Perhaps, just perhaps, it has something to do with a flagging libido, but more and more I am starting to read Germany’s Bild newspaper from back to front.

That is, beginning with the sports section rather than the logical method of admiring half-naked Melissa, (the 21-year-old “has prettied herself up for the beach party” apparently) and worrying about killer sprouts on the front page. So naturally I now know all about Jens Lehmann’s ambitions, at the age of 41, to keep goal for football club Schalke 04. And Michael Schumacher’s determination to race cars until he is a grandfather, Formula Opa, as it were.

It’s time for these people to give up (though not Melissa, of course!) and accept that they have to find something else to do. They are consumed, it seems, by a terrible vanity that persuades them of their indispensability. It’s not just sportsmen.

Why did the Yoda-like Heiner Geißler imagine that a political pensioner could solve the convoluted rail project Stuttgart 21? We used to pay attention to literature critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki because he read books to save us having to read them. But that was some time ago. Now we have become a bit sceptical as to whether he really has read all those books, too. Surely, that is the time to go.

Age can buy authority, that’s good. Even in England we believe that anyone who is 80 and who can eat a boiled egg qualifies for the Nobel Prize. But if we can no longer trust in the digested wisdom of our elders then it is better that we let them put on their slippers and sip camomile tea than endow them with cult status like Germany seems to do.

This probably seems unfair to those readers who are as close to the age of Mick Jagger as I am.

My point is not to declare seniors redundant but rather to lament the fact that German society in particular is too self-censoring to tell people to stop when they are making an embarrassment of themselves. Michael Schumacher, let’s face it, is exactly that: an embarrassment. He was never an interesting driver, but at least he won races. Now he never comes close to winning – and he still isn’t interesting. So, please, Michael, try Nordic Walking instead.

The German market for ageing gurus is fed, of course, by television which is trying to set itself apart from the instant reaction culture of the internet. Older people are trusted because they are not so easily made captive by political correctness. They have less to lose. So they throng on to talk show host Sandra Maischberger; aware that almost no-one will interrupt them. At home their wives tell them to shut up, call them silly old fools and order them to take the dog out for a walk. On Maischberger they can talk and talk.

Talking to Maischberger through a fog of cigarette smoke is how Helmut Schmidt first made the transition from grumpy but clever ex-chancellor to all-purpose life-style coach. I think this is de-valuing his currency, does him no service and will eventually backfire because some young revisionist historian will look into the archives and judge the Schmidt chancellorship to have been a failure. Politicians, of course, never know when to stop. That’s why we have elections and coup d’états. Helmut Kohl surely stayed five years too long in his job – a classic example of the Schumacher syndrome.

I don’t think any foreign correspondent has ever accused Germany of being too polite. But that’s what it is: an exaggerated respect, a chronic, almost neuralgic fear of discarding the wisdom of the aged lest mistakes are repeated. During the last election I followed Günter Grass around on his tour for the Social Democrats – and was astonished at how the overwhelmingly young audiences lapped up his words.

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Yet he really had nothing new to say; whatever his power as a writer, his politics have been in a deep freeze since 1972. This uncritical adulation is the hallmark not of a bad or failing society, but a deeply conservative one. Thanks to advances in cosmetic surgery and German super-vitamins (much admired in Britain by the way) 80 is becoming the new 60. According to my arithmetic that makes 70 the new death.

A healthy society doesn’t need 80-year-olds who look and behave as if they were twenty years younger. It should offer older people space to relax and reflect. It should listen to them, yes, but not thrust them into the limelight or put pressure on them to perform. It’s not good for them, and it’s not good for the rest of us: the cult of the old merely paves the way towards an intellectually immobile society.

And if you’re wondering whether big-mouthed foreign correspondents like me have a sell-by date, well, yes they do. At some stage they have to shut up too.

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Your comments about this article

23:00 June 15, 2011 by vonSchwerin
I remember when Grass told Oskar Lafontaine, "Halt's Maul! Trink deinen Rotwein, fahr in die Ferien, such dir eine sinnvolle Beschäftigung!" Hmmmm. That might be good advice for Herr Grass.

In the 1950s, he was a fresh and even shocking literary voice, and he deserved the Nobel Prize . . . around 1968. 52 years after the publication of Blechtrommel, I have to wonder if he's really au courant on contemporary society.
01:49 June 16, 2011 by tj33
Are you serious? The problem with the German government isn't that people are too old, it's that they don't have enough experience. Look at Merkel's cabinet: it's a joke.
03:01 June 16, 2011 by lunchbreak
Perhaps you should shut up. People should stop doing what they love because they get older? What nonsense. In the author's case it seems he should have retired some time ago before he started making a fool of himself.
10:43 June 16, 2011 by Brandoboy
Your obviously feeling redundant at your age Mr Boyles. Id rather be in a society with 80 year olds acting and looking like 60, than shut away in a nursing home. What is wrong with people doing what they love to do despite their age? It seems though you are not a good writer anyway, so perhaps greener pastures are waiting for you?
12:33 June 16, 2011 by harcourt
Mr Boyes should take a look at Chinese culture, if you're not over 70 yrs old you are not considered mature enough to fill the upper echelons of government. Which reminds me of when octogenerian Chou en Lai was asked what effect the French Revolution had on European history his reply was " It's too early to tell " !!!
15:08 June 16, 2011 by dacarch
It is admirable that Mr. Boyes, himself of advanced age, admits reality. It is true that we have much to learn from the older generations, but that does not mean we should listen to every word they utter as he points out. Just as Schumacher needs to move on and let others have a go, we too should listen to new ideas and fresh insights.

Have a long conversation with your grandparents, and learn a thing or two, but then go to a lecture in an art museum or similar, (given by a young independent speaker of course.) Then tell me, of the two experiences, which points to the future and which dwells in the past.
15:24 June 16, 2011 by derExDeutsche
I speak with many more young people under the age of 30 that embarrass themselves. Can't we just tell them to shut up? or will there just be more violence?
15:59 June 16, 2011 by catjones
Long after Mr. Boyes is gone and forgotten the people in this article will be remembered. Contributions trump criticisms.
16:25 June 16, 2011 by michael4096
"which points to the future and which dwells in the past."

Look at the commenters on this forum. Or, at least those that have indicated their rough age. Its frequently the older contributers that are prepared to present the fresh, forward thinking ideas and the younger ones that insist on replaying the old, tired and failed wisdom of the past.
13:15 June 17, 2011 by ValP
What is this article ABOUT anyway???? It is so long and laboriously written, and at the same time so painfully pointless!!!!!
14:36 June 17, 2011 by lunchbreak
What do you expect for nothing? Which was probably what the author was paid. Myself, I don't work with amateurs.
16:42 June 17, 2011 by aslanleon
Obsession with the new and novel is a sign of shallow, callow nitwits. The problem isn't that you don't change as you get older, the glory is that you do. The foolish sneer of the history deprived that the old conservatives will finally die off and give the new radicals with vision a chance. The reality is that the old conservatives were also once young radicals with vision and modern ideas. Reality happened and made us more rational and realistic. As Disraeli said, "Any twenty year old who is not a radical has no heart. Any forty year old who is still a radical has no brain."
17:47 June 17, 2011 by restlessgemini2
I do not mind to hearing mature and experienced share their opinions and reflections about issues. In the end, we will make up our own minds, no matter what the age! However, I do find it interesting that countries, such as the USA and the UK have no mandatory retirement age, but here instructors and staff have to retire in the education system (teachers, professors, instructors) when they hit 65 (sometimes in the middle of the semester). Sometimes this is regrettable because we could learn from them even in a semi-retired position, if they would choose to stay. Of course, I hear from others that 'they' should go as quickly as possibly, even taking early retirement to get them out of the system (and not have to pay so much) and get younger employees (to pay them less). hmmmm.............
18:47 June 17, 2011 by aslanleon
It's annoying that you turn into your father if you get old enough. It's exasperating that you also eventually turn into your grandfather. If I get much older, I'll turn into a Whig and try to vote for Henry Clay and Freylinghausen.
01:40 June 18, 2011 by liorabs
As they say in English - the proof of the pudding is the eating, and Germany, despite the wars and the holocause and the division and now the unification is a successful powerful country. So that means that there is something about the respect they have for their elders.

Generally speaking it is only natural that a younger generation wants to take its place and is waiting for the elderly to retire from leadership. Human beings are not supposed to live so long in nature. But we do now and that`s a fact, just as we have cataract operations, transplants, surrogate pregnancies, etc. We dont have an anti-fertility agent, so there will be more and more elderly people and more and more impatient younger people.
03:45 June 18, 2011 by KewGardensNYC
Anglo-Saxon cultures are essentially youth cultures where the fantasy of the child genius or nubile nymphet hold sway. Other cultures revere the mature and even the elderly, as with some N. American native cultures, and those of Asia. In Europe, continental cultures honored the elderly, from the triumphal entry of Voltaire into Paris in 1778, to the quest for mature authority which Mr. Boyes finds so unsettling.

Anglo-Saxon cultures are quick changing, like the language itself, and always scouting around (or hustling) for a new way of doing things. The conservative cultures of Europe and Asia hold onto what they have, traditionally refining, codifying and transmitting within an established pattern.

Voltaire found the English to be bad friends, unable to form strong bonds, always seeking novelty, new personalities as new distractions and never understanding that true friendship takes decades. He ultimately found them socially frivolous and superficial.

Given these points, this article, muddied as it is, can be seen as yet another example of how we see what we are taught to see; that one man's bastion of expertise and wisdom is another's old fart.

There are virtues and failings to each cultural pathway but given the rapid attack to each tradition as credibility is lost, and all traditional verities are cast into doubt, it is perhaps wisest to realize that change for the sake of change is most often dangerous and that the observations of many of the elderly are more prescient than an Anglo-Saxon might think.
03:53 June 19, 2011 by jimfromcanada
Quick changing? You mean adaptable. That is why we anglo-saxons have dominated the world for 200 years.
17:03 June 20, 2011 by canadianinberlin
Reading the article was a waste of time, reading the comments was not. (except for the nonsense that jim just posted)
15:07 June 24, 2011 by Louis Prince

This is applicable to only some people.(I don't mean offence, if your not guilty).

Killing the defenceless and running over nations posing no resitance, is actually cowardly. I'd accept it if the British felt sorry and apologised for those people's whom they killed all over the world, in thier imperialistic ventures. The fact is the British are proud of thier savage nature and history, so if you don't have some regret for your history, surely we don't whant your opinion.
21:08 June 27, 2011 by Landmine
This article is pretty stale by news standards (12 days old) surely there is new news out there.....
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