Not surprisingly we allotment codgers never discuss the big taboo subject; death. To be honest I find even typing the word unsettling, for anyone nudging the age of 80 and in robust health prefers to believe vaguely in immortality, in our case a zillion years of hen-keeping. Only the other day we planted a row of small trees and reflected that in twenty or so years time we will gaze with delight at the result. It genuinely didn’t occur to us that by that time our gazing days will be over.
What has brought on this sudden bout of introspection? The government statisics on ageing published today, that’s what. In illustrating life expectancy the statistics have chosen as a base people born around 1931, which ropes in most of us allotmenteers. A man born at that time has only a 2.5 per cent chance of receiving the Queens telegram, not that she will be around to send one. We decided not to dwell on the implicatiions of that.
In national terms the worrying aspect of the figures is that the 20 year-olds of today are three times more likely to reach a century than those of our generation. And between those extremes the age expectancy rises slowly but surely. The projection shows that by 2066 there will be half a million people aged 100 or more. Somewhere along that demographic curve lie statistics that show that ere long we will spend less than half of our lives at work, even allowing for the existing proposal to raise retirement age. One doesn’t need to be Einstein to work out that the present concept of contributions funding a reasonable pension is itself dying a rapid death. The present government deserves credit for facing up to this reality, however unpopular the proposed solutions may be.
Lord McFall, the chairman of the independent Workplace Retirement Income Commission, has warned that three quarters of private sector staff will be ” unable to adequately exist” when they retire due to the low level of savings. Yes, there are political arguments here about the rich, the public sector and so on, but the central truth is just that. Given a much longer retirement there will not be enough cash in the pension pots. I guess we owe it to future generations to tackle this problem right now.
Of course one of the reasons that younger people begrudge pension payments is that deep down they see old age as something too far way to even contemplate, let alone provide for. I used to listen to my grandparents talking about their youth with incredulity. How could they possibly remember things that happened so long ago? I now realise that time has a nasty habit of passing at a rapid rate of knots!
Another reason is probably the cultural reluctance to even speak the word of death, and thus old age. When death comes to elderly relatives we talk of tragedy. It is of course an inevitability. Some cultures take a different view, death is but the start of a glorious period of delight. Some in this culture believe something along those lines, I remember as a boy singing of “friends we shall meet that we lost long ago”. I also remember reflecting that the last thing I wished for was to meet again many that I encountered!
The mental block to acceptance of death as a topic may have something to with the reality of the act of dying and the portrayal of it in Victorian literature. There the bewhiskered old gentleman was invariably portrayed lying in his bed suurounded by his family. He would quietly sleep, and eventually sigh his last. If only that were the norm.
In 1821 the English poet Shelley wrote of a cemetary as an “open space covered in winter with violets and daisies”. It might, the great man suggested ” make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place”. Hmm! Today’s production-line cremetoria hardly fit that peaceful picture.
But far be it from me to spoil your day. The only issue I would wish to leave in your mind is the one of pensions. The good news is that for today’s younger generation old age and dependency are but a distant matter. But if they are to be spent other than in penury the time to begin the task of making financial povision is now. Unless the retirement age is increased spectacularly no state scheme will be able to provide.
I read this morning of the death of Richard Pearson. The gifted character actor was 93 and will always live in my memory for his ablility to bring a kindly dignity and humanity to the many parts he played in a long career on stage, television and in film. I am sure that he did not rage against the coming of the night and I like to imagine that instead, unlike so many of us, simply accepted what was to be, planned accordingly and then thought no more about it.
Perhaps the saddest thing of all is that we are all dependent on politicians to lead us on the answer to increased life expectancy. The people we trust least of all are poor advocates but they are all we have!
ANSWERS TO YESTERDAY’S GENERAL KNOWLEDGE QUIZ; 1. Hamlet 2. Central Park Zoo, New York 3. Take That 4. Surrey 5. Elizabeth 1 6. Tommy Steele 7. Tutti Fruitti 8. A boat 9. Rockall 10. Portillo