Tuesday 5 October 2010

Now, what was I trying to remember?

Somewhere in my filing cabinet of curiosities lies the death certificate of a great-grandparent who apparently expired of “old age and decay”. He was around the same age that I am now.

I was reminded of this when an eager young stockbroker visited me on Friday to fill in one of those almost endless and certainly mindless box-ticking forms that regulators in every field now demand to save us from ourselves.

“Would you still describe yourself as semi-retired?” he asked. I shook my head and, in answer to the obvious follow-up, gestured around the bombsite that is my sitting room, strewn with toddler-related detritus.

He did not even bother to wait for a reply to the question “When do you plan to retire?” He just smiled sympathetically.

I am doing my best to earn more, but as I do so I am increasingly struck by the following paradox. On the one hand we are all being told that we must work for longer, as life expectancy steadily increases and pension funds buckle under the combined strain of longevity, lousy stock market performance and Gordon Brown’s half-witted tax raid on their resources.

Yet at precisely the same time, the optimum age for earning serious money grows ever lower. Every major political party in this country is now led by someone (a man, harrumph, or rather harriet-umph!) under the age of 45. More relevantly to me, the average age of a FTSE-100 chief executive is 52. Why would anyone choose an adviser older then themselves, when they could so easily find one who is younger, fitter and considerably more attractive?

The traditional answer used to be: experience. There is good reason to think that our current financial hole would be considerably shallower if there had been more people around who could remember that property and other financial bubbles always burst one day, and that the proper reaction to any claim to have abolished boom and bust is hollow laughter followed by a robust swipe with a blunt instrument.

But sadly it appears that my analogue experience has little relevance in the digital world, where the relentless advance of technology requires a cult of youth because only the young understand it. They may have a point. My son Charlie is not yet 16 months old and has already discovered functions in our mobile phones and remote controls of which we were blissfully ignorant.

However, it does raise the problem of how on earth we are supposed to keep working until we drop if we aren’t actually equipped to do anything useful. I have only ever possessed a modest talent for stringing words together, combined with a ferociously good short-term memory. This gave me a wholly unfair advantage in passing the sort of exams by which intelligence used to be indexed.

Now my memory is fading as fast as the snows on Kilimanjaro. My doctor quickly gave me a comforting diagnosis when I went to see him the other day about some skin blemishes. I repeated his words to myself on the 15-minute drive home, but when my wife asked me what they were I could still manage nothing better than “umm … something to do with carrots”.

I had to go on the internet to look up the real name of my non-cancerous growths: seborrhoeic keratoses. And I was only able to track that down because my doctor had laughingly mentioned the name by which they used to be known before political correctness took hold: senile warts.

So here I am, clearly well advanced on the path to old age and decay, my mind palpably going, but still in need of paid employment until I’m 80, in competition with all those people who are about to be downsized from the public sector or eased off benefits.

Any bright ideas, Prime Minister Whatsisname?
Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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