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In her recent book ‘Why Grow Up?’ (Penguin, 2014) American philosopher Susan Neiman combines a defence of the Enlightenment with an unexpectedly anarchist perspective on the meaninglessness of work. Thus, following Kant, her account of ‘growing up’ focuses on the way, as adults, we must try and reconcile the reality of how the world is with the adolescent insistence on how it ought to be – metaphysics and ethics are in a state of tension. This does not mean forgoing the struggle for a better world: accepting that our ideals are unattainable doesn’t invalidate our continuing to pursue them. Thus, consumerism, fossil fuel consumption and the planned obsolescence of manufactured goods all come under Neiman’s withering gaze. One aspect of the disillusion we may feel in early adulthood is discovering that so much work is pointless (as in David Graeber’s ‘bullshit jobs’) and that we have been groomed to grow up ‘absurd’ (Paul Goodman):

“Grown-up work would be unquestionably useful, and it would require energy, spirit and the use of our best capacities; work, that is, that can be done with honour and dignity. Fewer jobs than ever meet these criteria; most involve doing things that are patently useless, possibly harmful, certainly wasteful, and demeaning and dumb to boot. And Goodman was writing in an era of full employment; these days millions of qualified young people are glad to find any job at all.” (Neiman, 2014, p 167)

For Neiman, this downgrading does not justify refusing to grow up, nor does it exempt us from challenging the systemic infantilism of contemporary capitalism. It’s a position that should invigorate current explorations of exclusion, class and gender from a moral perspective. In a sense it’s still the familiar modernist tale, and one that may seem at odds with much contemporary scholarship about the deregulated lifecourse and the increasingly blurred transitions that once marked it out. But while the map of the lifecourse may no longer fit the territory so reliably, that seems no reason to dispense with the foundational idea (roughly what I understood Jan Baars to be saying last year at BSG Southampton) any more than the prevalence of GPS supplants the relevance and beauty of cartography, or the practical application of map-reading.

The reading I’ve done for today’s launch event at Camden Intergenerational Week has included James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man from 1916 (where Stephen Dedalus memorably turns away from all the options others seek to impose on him), James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew on the centenary of the emancipation in 1964 (on what it meant to grow up in Harlem under a system designed to prove you were ‘a worthless human being’), and Georgia Gould’s enthusiastic endorsement of the not always well understood attempts to achieve recognition by the beleagured young of contemporary Britain. Neiman herself goes on to make a persuasive link between the devaluing of growing up and the reluctance to grow old. Her book has been my source for this year’s second Kilburn Debate ‘Fitting together with age’. Thus, the tension between Kant’s is and ought remains with us throughout our lives, and Neiman questions the multifarious forces which now insist we don’t have to be old. Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Hume, Nietszche and Simone de Beauvoir put in an appearance.

Just as the increasing diversity, unpredictability, and material inequality of the transition to adulthood does not invalidate the idea of growing up the same phenomena affecting later life should not undermine the case for becoming, identifying with, and (crucially) pronouncing ourselves to be old. Neither the construct of agelessness, nor the social model of disability have fully addressed the prospect of life’s finitude as it now confronts so many of us. A counter-argument can be made, of course – there are no absolutes here. The pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski, for example, produced a luminous recording of Mozart’s last piano sonata at the age of 95, gave his final concert at the age of 99, and died in 1993 at the age of 101, a week after giving a piano lesson. Perhaps, this unusual, highly specialised, experience of agency meant he did not encounter the sense of limits I believe it’s important to evoke. I doubt it, however, and think it will be the experience of most of us who survive to such an age – a substantial minority of us in circumstances that leave a lot to be desired. As a condition being old will have several characteristics, I argue: a sense of the encroaching end; an ability (a willingness) to look back with some degree of satisfaction; a readiness to attend to the overlapping complexity of memory and present sensation; and a positive reinforcement of the validity of age from those around us. This point is central, reinforced by one of the few reflective texts written by someone who identified herself as old. The precision and poignancy of the following is characteristic of Florida Scott-Maxwell:

“We have reached the place beyond resignation, a place I had no idea existed until I had arrived here. It is a place of high energy. Perhaps passion would be a better word than energy, for the sad fact is this vivid life cannot be used. If I try to transpose it into action I am soon spent.” (The Measure of My Days, 1968, p 69)

This frank emphasis on her incapacity is a persistent theme:

“I don’t like to write this down, yet it is much in the minds of the old. We wonder how much older we have to become, and what degree of decay we may have to endure. We keep whispering to ourselves, “Is this age yet? How far must I go?” For age can be dreaded more than death… But we also find that as we age we are more alive than seems likely, convenient, or even bearable. Too often our problem is the fervour of life within us. My dear fellow octogenarians, how are we to carry so much life, and what are we to do with it?” (ibid, pp 138-139)

Scott-Maxwell’s is a moral and spiritual perspective, rather then political. But that final sentence is significant in her willingness to identify a constituency, to speak to her peers. It introduces my fifth criterion: politics. Without a constituency no shared politics is possible. I’ve come to believe things won’t change for us in the ‘fourth age’ until we identify it as meaningful and defensible, a space that deserves a language and is one we choose to occupy.

The glaring absence at the centre of virtually all related campaigning has been the voices of the very aged. The women like Rose Hacker and Diana Athill who’ve written as residents of the Mary Feilding Guild home in Highgate over the last 20 years may be from a cultural elite but they are an important resource. It will make a great difference to the way such voices are received if we look forward to their condition, and learn to identify with this last unpredictable phase of our lives. So, however much I grumble at the prospect, and whatever oppressions I confront, I hope I get old before I die – a lyric for which Pete Townshend, 70 next week, may even now be groping for the tune.