Photo: Wild Times - David Attenborough at 80, Source BBC Radio 4

A few weeks ago on this blog, Sasha Scambler and Blánaid Daly did a fantastic job of unpicking the “intergenerational blame game”. They briefly, but very convincingly, exposed the various flaws in the right wing argument that social welfare and health care will soon become “unaffordable” because of the advancing army of ageing baby boomers. But one place where the cold war between generations is more likely to break out into open hostilities is the workplace.

When I was six or seven years old I used to await the weekly airing of Juke Box Jury with eager anticipation. But even back in the early 60’s, the voice and pronunciation of David Jacobs seemed like a throwback to an earlier time. I swear I remember thinking that he was just like the boring husband who makes his key appearance in the last few minutes of Brief Encounter. But that might well be a more recently invented memory.

david jabobs

David Jacobs presenting Juke Box Jury 1959-1967

So when Jacobs died at aged 87 the other day, I was briefly plunged into a mental meander down memory lane. For me the very mention of his name conjured up Jack Frost’s patterns on the window panes (inside), playing on bombsites, pipe smoke (Dad’s – not mine) and spuds with everything. I can’t be alone in remembering that time in monochrome only.

But when the radio and TV news began to laud his “career spanning seven decades” my reverie took a different turn. In hushed and admiring tones, newsreaders told us how Jacobs presented his last regular radio slot only weeks ago. And I found myself wondering why on earth this was being talked about as a good thing.

What, exactly, I asked, lies behind the reverential reporting of David Jacobs’ life and death in this way? And what other examples of the phenomenon are around? The answer to the second question is easy – the seriously ancient celeb is now firmly part of our cultural furniture. The Daily Mail, for example, recently mentioned head-of-state Elizabeth Windsor as a “role model” for the over 65’s. Another person often talked about in this context is nature documentary maker David Attenborough.

The common factor shared by these people is that they are not only still in work at an advanced age, they are in the same work that they have always been in. Having reached the top several decades ago, they have stayed put. And, as with David Jacobs, it is the ongoing tenacity of these icons that we are being invited to admire and strive to copy. They got the top jobs – and they hung on to them. Isn’t that marvellous?

As the tributes to David Jacobs poured in, I found myself wondering if people were praising the right thing. The fact that Attenborough and Windsor continue to enjoy reasonably good health (with the help of the odd spare part or two) is lovely for them. But is it praiseworthy, as such? As far as the status of “role model” is concerned, epidemiological statistics would suggest that most people haven’t much chance of emulating them, anyway.

The cult of useful longevity that these few aged people represent has not got much to do with either the health profiles or work experiences of most oldsters. Out there in the real world, people are much more likely to encounter dementia, physical degeneration, poverty, loneliness and ageism. The real struggle is how to ensure that older people at work (and in the wider world) can find a way of enriching their respective fields by using a long lifetime’s stock of experience and good sense.

Losing the benefit of the vast cultural and social capital that resides in older members of any community is something to be avoided. Using it, on the other hand, is a ‘win/win’ scenario. First off, fewer mistakes are re-made and fewer wheels have to be re-invented. In addition, older punters are contributing and participating so they feel useful. Consequently they gain respect and status in younger eyes, because they are useful. But does this mean the old brigade need to occupy the top positions and hold the whip hand? Even assuming that they’ve got that far up the greasy pole – which most of them won’t have.

Earlier this summer, the Radio Times announced that David Attenborough “is expected to produce a high profile natural history programme along the lines of Frozen Planet and Planet Earth before his 90th birthday”. Now you may think Dave is the absolute master at this kind of thing, or you may think (like I do) that he’s embarrassingly useless, old fashioned and excruciatingly dull. But whichever point of view you are drawn to, you have to recognise that the BBC doesn’t have the budget to make lots of these high-end shows. And it would be reasonable to assume that there are at least a few scientists, writers and presenters out there who could also make “high profile” programmes. We’ve never heard of them, of course, but they might well be capable of making TV in all sorts of innovative and interesting ways.

But why haven’t we heard of them? Because of the stubborn tenacity of one old geezer who won’t take his hands off the prize, backed up by the willing complicity of a lazy and sycophantic bunch of programme commissioners. The worst aspect of this is that every year that passes with the top job being blocked by the old star (national treasure, though he may be) is another year that a younger and possibly highly talented rival grows older and more frustrated. In this light, Attenborough’s desire to make another one-man-centred blockbuster before the age of 90 is not admirable – it’s selfish.


Queen’s 80th Birthday from Michael Gwyther-Jones Flickr Photostream

But in the selfishness stakes, Windsor is clearly out in front. If we were in need of one clear example of how longevity in the work place is detrimental to the opportunity of the junior generation, we need look no further than the Palace. While having benefited from the incredible chance of taking the top job in her early twenties, Windsor is content to deny the role to her deputy while he turns old, grey and quite probably bitter in her shadow.

Congratulating the old on occupying top positions into their 80’s and 90’s is neither a nice nor a functional aspect of contemporary culture. If these people are lucky enough to be well enough to work so late in life, they should be wise enough and gracious enough to see that the appropriate thing to do would be to offer their experience as advisor, mentor or consultant and willingly take a back (or at least side) seat. Or they could simply hang up their boots, retire and give younger people the same chance to shine as they themselves enjoyed a few decades back.

So that’s the media stars and the monarch out of the way – now what about all those University Professors??