It’s time society overcame its fear of ageing, says Lynne Segal, author of a new book on an old problem.
When people visit Lynne Segal at her home in London and they see the piles of books about age and ageing, the first thing they ask is: “Don’t you get depressed thinking about getting old all the time?” Segal laughs wryly as she tells me this. As Anniversary Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies at Birkbeck, University of London, now in her late-60s, the question – tinged with fear, maybe even a little bit of loathing and certainly more than a touch of incomprehension – is one of the very reasons she wanted to write about ageing. After all, it happens to everyone – why should it be depressing?
“The present moment,” Segal writes, in her fine new book, Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing, “remains saturated with different forms of prejudice against the elderly.” This might mean the horror of ageing bodies – particularly, but not only, women’s bodies – that is woven into the fabric of our language and culture (more than a million women had Botox in 2010, by 2018 it’s expected that the global market will be worth £1.9 billion) or it might mean what she calls ‘the generational blame game’ that seeks to pit one age group against another when looking for a scapegoat for our current, often economic, hardships, or it might be the “statistical panic” over the “greying world”. Too strong? I don’t think so. What else lies behind the spiralling loneliness statistics, the constant carping about ‘baby boomers’ having nicked our futures with their early retirements and growing care needs, and the increasing disregard for the situation in which many older people find themselves? A recent survey revealed that one in every four pensioners is worried about keeping warm in their own homes this winter. Age UK has said that struggling to afford to heat homes could affect as many as three million older people across the UK.
Indeed, type the word ageing into a search engine and what will assail you is a plethora of ways in which to fight it – infinite lotions and potions to help you look younger, endless exercise regimes to enable you to combat the depredations of decrepitude, as though all we need to outrun the process of getting older is to move a little faster on the treadmill. What you’ll be hard pushed to find is anything that treats ageing as a natural and inevitable process. Beneath the myriad tips and advice, the fear is palpable. The lesson we must learn is that ageing is to be resisted at every turn. To give in is to give up.
There are 10 million people over 65 in the UK, a sixth of the population. The average life expectancy is 82.6 years for women and 78.5 years for men. Segal is clear that the pressures of ageing apply to both women and men, but there’s little doubt that “pernicious sexism” makes it tougher for women.
“We are aged by our culture,” says Segal. “Women are seen as being old from their mid-40s, much earlier than men. Men are not seen as old in the same way – if they’re ever seen as old in the same way – until their 50s and 60s.” Crucially, it’s not the case of the more older people there are, the more they are respected, understood and valued. Often, it seems quite the reverse is true.
“It’s a topic that’s in the air all the time,” Segal says, “the problem of the ageing population, not just here but worldwide. It’s in the air, in the background. In the foreground, what older people always say whenever they’re interviewed is that they don’t feel old. The huge stigma of being old, despite the rhetoric of ageing well, makes people feel, well, I can’t be old.” Segal’s argument is that it needn’t be this way.
Drawing on her lifelong political activism – she arrived in London in 1970 fresh from the libertarian movement in Sydney, where she was born and studied, and threw herself into grassroots politics, protesting against racism, sexism and homophobia and for a more egalitarian society as a leading voice in the women’s movement – for Segal growing older can be an incredibly rich phase of our lives. We need to think differently about not only what it is to age, but what it is to live a full life regardless of how old we are. “We have a rhetoric of ageing well,” says Segal, “and the idea that we can all stay young and healthy and not be dependent on others, but that’s a nonsense at any age. We’re all dependent in different ways. Those men working long hours in in their jobs need a lot of support – caring for their kids or looking after their daily welfare. All this gets quite forgotten, as though it’s only the elderly who are dependent.”
Our ability to care for all those who need it, and not just the elderly, is a product, Segal argues, of much broader features of our society. It’s about time and resources, not being at work for 50 or 60 hours a week, not being so cash-strapped we can’t contemplate supporting anyone else. Unfortunately, this is getting worse not better. “It’s hypocrisy the way the UK government pretends to care about the elderly,” she says. “Where older people are best cared for by the family, as well as by the wider society, is where things are in place to help facilitate the caring for dependent people and that’s exactly what we don’t have. Job insecurity, low wages, long hours, none of these things help us to create a caring society.”
Part of what Segal is arguing for is a different way of understanding the ageing process itself, taking into account that as we age we don’t suddenly become different people, simply forgetting who we once were. “Even when we are old and fragile we still are, in our heads, the young people we were as well as the old people we are,” she says. It’s not that there are no differences between the young and old, but more that it helps all of us to be more aware of, “what it means to have lived a long life, to have stories to tell,” as well as “to probably be more fragile and vulnerable.
“The idea that being old means you’ve got nothing to give anyone is the most horrific thing our culture imposes on people,” she says. “We have things to say to younger people. Younger people have things to say to us. I do think that the way our culture tries continuously to fence us off in our age groups is a big loss and the social baiting of my generation, the so-called baby boomers, is truly appalling.” She mentions the habit of politicians of doing little to tackle the real needs of older people here while plaintively mentioning other countries, such as China, in which the elderly are, apparently, held in more esteem. Segal is unimpressed. “In China, just a few months ago, they introduced a law to say that children can be jailed for not visiting their elderly parents.”
Segal’s book is not only meticulously researched, expansive and thoughtful, it’s revealing too. She explores her own fears and vulnerabilities about growing older, considering loss and grief, loneliness and one of the biggest taboos, sex. Older women in the public eye who have painted a picture of their lives as being liberated from sex and desire – Germaine Greer, Virginia Ironside, Irma Kurtz, amongst others – have told only half the story, she says.
“Men never give up on sex, hence the whole appeal of Viagra,” she says. “We never hear men saying they are post-sexual, whereas for women and particularly women in the public eye that is a very common stance.” It began, she says, with Germaine Greer’s book, The Change, in which she wrote she was happily post-sexual and got more pleasure from her garden than sexual intimacy.
For Segal, the explanation for this is the humiliation that older women who present themselves as sexual beings are likely to face. Mutton dressed as lamb, cougar, toy boy – there’s no shortage of criticism. Better then to reject sex, than be rejected for being sexual. But that’s not good enough for Segal.
“Although we age and although we might have less energy and become frailer, we still remain the people we’ve been, we still want – why wouldn’t we want – physical comforting, cuddles, kisses. Intimacy isn’t just genital contact, although I think older women, like older men, might enjoy that, it’s the whole package. It’s about someone looking at you and knowing you, desiring you and wanting to be with you, sharing your life.”
The way Segal puts it, it makes perfect sense. Of course it does. It’s just that when you then remember that 60 per cent of older women live alone, the skewed way we live becomes painfully clear.
Sometimes people say that as we age we become more conservative, but it’s not an accusation you could level at Segal. Her writing is impassioned and her political commitments as strong as ever. “Many of my friends feel like that,” she says. “Even if we can’t be there at the barricades, which we usually can’t, we’re busy watching the television or getting hold of the papers or trying to develop our own ideas on how things might be different.” To make growing older less frightening, she says, we need “wise folk” to guide us. Segal is surely one of them.
Out of Time: The Perils and Pleasures of Ageing by Lynne Segal is out now, published by Verso, £16.99.