herald

Monday 20 August 2018

the state pension is proof that age has its rewards

turning 80 is a milestone and a point in our lives when we're free to be proud of our age

It was the comment of a neighbour that got me thinking. Knowing that my father had celebrated his 80th birthday the previous week, he asked how the day had gone. I replied, truthfully, that it had been brilliant.

Not that there was anything particularly extravagant about the celebrations. We went for dinner in a restaurant close to where my parents live in County Clare. There was a spirited rendition of Happy Birthday and a cake with seven candles.

"Oh, I thought he was 70," explained the manager. This may have been deliberate flattery; if so, it worked. Back home, the house was festooned with cards and the phone rang constantly. Relations and friends, some of whom hadn't been heard from in an age, all wanted to wish him many happy returns.

What made the day even better was that my dad so patently enjoyed every minute of it. By the time you reach 80, it seems, all that awful birthday reticence has gone. There's no need to be vague about the milestone you have reached or to claim that you're "not really a birthday person".

Your age is a source of pride. In birthday terms, being 80 must be the next best thing to being a child. Certainly, I can't recall any other anniversary attracting so much good will.

Anyway, back to the neighbour. When I told him about the day, he nodded. "That's the thing about your father's generation," he said. "They're tough. They went through so much that they learned to take everything in their stride."

How right he was. If, like my dad, you were born in 1934, you've lived through a mind- boggling amount of upheaval. Your childhood took place during Ireland's biggest ever euphemism, The Emergency. Then came the depression of the 1950s when the economy foundered and tens of thousands - my dad among them - left.

Just as some emigrants started to return, the Troubles broke out. Admittedly, the 1970s saw a brief burst of prosperity. But, for fear complacency might set in, along came the 1980s.

Record unemployment, double-digit inflation, crippling interest rates: you name it, we specialised in it.

The boom years brought with them different challenges: spiralling prices, new ways of living, crazy expectations. And finally, just as those born in the 30s and 40s embraced retirement, everything came tumbling down again.

They watched the banks crash, the economy go into freefall and another generation leave.

At least most latter-day emigrants depart with a pretty solid education and some knowledge of the world. The bulk of those who left in the 1950s did so with minimal education.

Many had already watched brothers and sisters go. Their expectations of coming home again were low.

Perhaps it was his own years in Britain that gave my father his relaxed attitude towards the arrival of newcomers. Ten years ago, when people started arriving in significant numbers, I asked what he thought.

"There's room for us all if we don't swell," he replied. He saved his concern for young people getting into debt. In particular, he was suspicious of the price being paid for property.

Frequently, when passing one of those out-size houses that had sprung up around rural Ireland, he would ask why anybody would need such an enormous home.

That, to me, seems to be the defining characteristic of those who are now entering their ninth decade. They tend to be wary of the flashy or the ostentatious.

They're sceptical of anything that wasn't achieved by hard work (although they do value a bit of old-fashioned cunning). Shrewdness and a positive attitude are held in higher esteem than paper qualifications.

My dad has an extensive store of sayings, many of which reflect these values. My favourite is, "He's lucky his father was born before him".

reflections

You have no idea how many smart young men have been dismissed with this line. I like it so much that I used it in my first novel, Going Back.

Other classics include a neat summation of excessive greed - "much wants more" - and an equally pithy reflection on life's unfairness - "you have a goose, you get a goose".

One final thought on being 80: On going to collect his pension, my father was surprised and delighted to discover that the payment had gone up. When you pass 80, apparently, you get an extra €10 per week. Despite the fact that I've reported on umpteen budgets, I must admit that I wasn't aware of this.

In a world where youth is all and where people go to ludicrous lengths to hold back the clock, it's good to learn that - sometimes - age has its rewards.

Rachael English's new book, Each & Every One, is published by Orion, price €15.99

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