The new rules of growing old gracefully

Nick Cave 2009 New York City David Shankbone

I was reminded an old post I made here, back when I could write. It’s not that I’ve forgotten how to do it, or magically been zapped by some wicked witch, but I’ve just run out of time and enthusiasm. I wonder if that’s what happens to everyone in the end. When was the last good Metallica album you heard? Isn’t the best recent Ministry album a pale copy of Psalm 69? I might hope for a good new NIN album, but we’ll likely get a dull slab of corporate dad-rock with some tinkly bits.

What happened to us all?

We got old. Rock ‘n’ roll comes with a deadline, and when you reach it, time to die or move on. You’re not supposed to still be there at 50. 

Of course, back in my mother’s day, they put you out to pasture at 35. You were old: past it. I mean, even look at Sybil Fawlty with her granny coif and blouses; she’s my age, but here I am with my leather jeggings and army boots – who’m I trying to kid? But if my twenties are spanning a couple of decades, it’s the New Normal. We don’t all hide from public view the minute we get past 30, but keep on going to gigs and playing gigs and just … carry on. We’ve torn up the rulebook that says that the only dignified performer over 35 is playing a greatest hits show with velvet curtains in a modest frock.


So where now? It’s like we’re feeling our way in the dark, unsure what we can “get away with” any more. Where do we draw the line? Kylie with her microshorts and botox?

Madonna with her muscled thighs and fillers?


If I have a “problem” with either, it’s that they’re still trying to play a young woman’s game. They’re lying about their ages – not chronologically, but in how they cut and puff up their faces and sing in little girls’ high-pitched voices. That’s what I find undignified. Or perhaps we just haven’t written the rules for Older Women’s Pop yet. (Maybe the problem isn’t the endless facelifts, but that the music sounds characterless and fake because they’ve lost the youthful passion that made them famous.)

Rock has an easier time, because we’ve got the precedent of blues. No-one’s ever batted an eyelid of a jazz or blues musician going onstage at 70, but even at 40, the rock musician feels this need to apologise. I’m failing to find a clip of David Yow muttering, “Yes, I’m an old man” before launching into a set as energetic as anything he did 20 years ago. There’s an even funnier clip of Nick Cave reminding a fan, “I’m 51 years old!”, as she gropes him at a concert.

You are allowed to grow up – even allowed to grow old – but there’s still this expectation that you should retire from the stage at 35. We’re just not used to durability – either in people or in the bands themselves.

I think that’s a 1960s thing. Everything was disposable then – or so my mother tells me. She’d save her pocket money and buy the latest single, after which she’d be expected to throw it away. “You’re not still playing that old thing!” the other kids would tease her. Thank God she clung on to some of the gems she’s passed down to me: I just can’t imagine life without my scratched up 7″ of I Am The Walrus or Band of Gold.

The discs were disposable, the songs were disposable, and the bands weren’t expected to outlast an album or two. Even in my own youth, it was unusual for a band to make a third or fourth album, so the thought of Nick Cave’s fifteenth album being one of his best is astonishing to me.

But then, we don’t age the way that we used to.

Apparently, 100 years ago, you had the same chance of dying at 30 as someone 30,000 years ago. It’s only in the past century that we’ve rapidly increased not just our longevity but our youthfulness. The only cruel reminder of time is fertility, which still declines rapidly in our thirties for women and fifties for men – but I still have many, many friends pushing prams at 39, and the average age for giving birth is rising. Just a decade ago, my fifty-something boss was a frail old man who stank of decay; now my older co-workers are lithe and limber, and my former boss is filling her retirement with contract work and sports.

We’re living longer, staying fitter, and that translates into how we accept people on the stage. You can keep the job for as long as you can physically fulfill the role, and the post-punk generation definitely still has the requisite energy.


It’s about whether you’re still enjoying what you do – whether you’re still inspired by it, and whether you’re still learning new things about it. If Thom Yorke wants to take up dancing in his mid-forties, that’s something he can do under the New Rules. “Hope I die before I get old” has been replaced by “hope I do everything before I get old” – with an ever-shifting definition of “old”.


Pleasingly, these shifting sands are changing the landscape of Hollywood, and of television in turn. For decades, women have bemoaned the lack of decent parts for over-30s, but now there’s an increasing recognition that it takes you until you’re 40 to really learn your craft. Don’t forget that Naomi Watts and Halle Berry are well into their forties.


What I find most interesting is that under the New Rules, you don’t even have to pretend to be young any more. From Jenny Agutter to Anna Chancellor, the cast of Spooks was full of stylish women in their 40s and 50s who were clever and brave – and don’t forget Lindsay Duncan’s scene-stealing turn as the terrifying rogue agent, Angela Wells. Still, I liked Lindsay best as Servilia in Rome – a role she undoubtedly wouldn’t have won if she’d looked too “plastic” – playing off against sexy schemer Attia (Polly Walker).


The Rules of Ageing in the 80s were just not to get old, but now, you’re not even considered “old” until you’re at the age where you’d be dropping dead in your grandparents’ day – and then you’ve got another 20 years of (hopefully) good health to look forward to. So we can afford to enjoy it and not to try to fight it, but just view it as a further opportunity to find new things to love. If there’s a rule now, it’s to keep up that momentum – not falling into ruts, but leaving behind the things that no longer inspire us and voyaging on to new adventures.

Christopher Lee understands it best, as he wrote that rule. At 90 years old, he is releasing his second album of symphonic metal – Charlemagne: Omens of Death – after winning the Kerrang! award for The Spirit of Metal. Because he gets it, man. Unlike the rest of these young pretenders. Eh, they’ll learn.

Give them time. They’ve got plenty.


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