Alec Marsh

Why the old are getting younger

Stars like Madonna reveal the slow decline of ageing

  • From Spectator Life

Researchers at the Humboldt University of Berlin have discovered that we no longer consider ourselves old until we’re 74. What’s more, by the time you reach 74, you think old age begins at 77. Which is something to celebrate – just don’t tell the Department for Work and Pensions or they’ll get more bright ideas about pushing back the state retirement age still further (it’s already due to rise to 68 in the 2040s already, don’t forget).

Sexual selection is increasing the prevalence of neoteny – that is the retention of juvenile traits

As well as perceptions, of course, the facts about our ageing society speaks for themselves: when I was born in the 1970s the median age in Britain 30. Now it’s just over 40. There are now 15.5 million people over 60 in Britain – enough to fill 220 parliamentary constituencies – of which 3.2 million are over 80. We even have enough centenarians (around 15,000) to fill a market town the size of Dorking. 

Being old is decidedly mainstream. It’s small wonder, then, that our perceptions are changing: 50 is the new 40. And what about 60? Well, Madonna is 60 – actually, she’s 65, isn’t she? – so a year older than the age culturally inscribed by The Beatles in 1967 in ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ as a point when a pipe, slippers and a few grandchildren might be the summit of our ambitions.

Yet Madonna – say what you like about the aesthetic results of her efforts to disguise the passage of time – is fully two years older than Alec Guinness was when he picked up the light-sabre to play Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars in 1977. (And if my maths is right Peter Cushing was only 64 at the time, too).

That means that Guinness, 63 in 1977, was scarcely a year or so older than Keanu Reeves or Tom Cruise are now – and they would surely both consider themselves plausible Hollywood leading men. At the equivalent age can you imagine Guinness hopping into a F-14 as Cruise did in Top Gun: Maverick? Or could you imagine George Clooney, now 62, robing up to be the elderly Jedi master?

It’s surely no coincidence: as we’ve aged, so have our celebrities and we’ve become necessarily desensitised to age, and not just to the use of face ‘fillers’ and botox. 

Because looking back, it’s hard to deny that stars of yesteryear appeared to be older than they were – and not just because of their clothing or hairdos. The matinee idol Robert Shaw, for instance, was just 46 when he shot Jaws, but look at the Quint, the character he played and you’d think he approaching 70 (I don’t think the difference was make-up). Sid James, the craggy Carry On star, meanwhile was just 62 when he died in 1976, meaning he was in his fifties when Barbara Windsor fired her bikini top off to great aplomb.

For a more modern example consider that John Mahoney was 53 when he was just about plausibly cast as Kelsey Grammer’s potentially youthful looking dad in Frasier in 1993 (Mahoney was 14 years and eight months older than the star). Or consider the surprise many evince when they discover that the actor who played George Constanza was just 30 when Seinfeld was first broadcast in 1989. 

Perhaps no finer example of our shifting perception is ol’ blue eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, who had his first comeback in 1973 – when he was just 68? Sinatra continued to perform for decades after that until his death in 1998, at the relatively spritely age of 82 – yet he was regarded as positively ancient then. He was only a few months older than the incumbent American president is now. Ditto Reagan – regarded as positively Jurassic when he occupied the Oval Office – was actually a year or so younger than Trump was in his first term, and lived on until 2004.

So what’s going on? Well, as a general rule, there are fewer manual workers in our developed societies than there were, so there’s less wear and tear on the body; and those manual jobs that do exist benefit from being more mechanised than ever before. Moreover people smoke less and they drink less, and the public health management of conditions like heart attacks and stroke has reduced their prevalence too, so we’re all living longer and somewhat healthier. We’ve been having children later in life on average, meaning grandchildren turn up later, so grandparents tend to be older too.

It could be, as some believe, that there’s something biological going on: sexual selection is increasing the prevalence of neoteny – that is the retention of juvenile traits – in human beings. And, accordingly, we are becoming less hairy, less angular and heavy around the eyebrows – altogether a bit less Land That Time Forgot.

I could not say. Certainly we know that we are living longer and we are active for longer. Nowadays, if you skip or survive cancer, you can keep being 60 until your late-70s or even 80 if you’re lucky, albeit you’re just a little bit less 60 with each passing year. In the same way, you can essentially be 30 until your late 40s, particularly if you use the right toothpaste, keep your hair and go for the occasional jog. Everything is relative. The fact is that everyone is now so old that most of us are probably younger than we think.