Life starts at 66!

Dynamic senior citizen – the third spring

27 years ago a lanky, good-looking 43 year old, who could have passed for 33, sang about how “Life starts at 66, life is fun when you’re 66″ – at the time this was both a provocation and something of a prediction. Don’t just sit back and do nothing, he urged the older generation, who had survived the privations of World War II and the tough post-war years of reconstruction. “66 is still a long way from the end.”"Life starts at 66″ – the message of this popular hit became the motto for an entire generation, and today is more relevant than ever. It is estimated that the over-sixties will make up the majority of the population in Germany by the year 2030. Life expectancy is constantly rising, while at the same time ever fewer children are being born. Already, older people who are still a long way from the “scrap heap” are becoming more vocal. 

Supporting pillar in society

Udo Jürgens, the singer whose anthem to the “third spring” made it to the top of the charts 30 years ago, is one of them. On 30 September he celebrated his 70th birthday, has just brought out his autobiography, and has no intention whatsoever of retiring from public appearances. “I underwent an examination recently to determine my biological age. The result was fantastic! Early fifties” reports Jürgens proudly and confidently in an interview.For Jürgen Sinn, editor-in-chief of German magazine Lenz, which incidentally means Spring, the 50-plus generation is a supporting pillar in our society. “Just look at all the voluntary work that is done. The over fifties are active in sports clubs and choirs, they initiate and support social movements – everything from hospices and food programmes for the homeless to Greenpeace.”

What is new about this generation, he explains, is their positive attitude towards consumption, which does not contradict their charitable work. Whereas many older people in the past would stop buying things (“not worth it at my age”), people in their prime today like to treat themselves – they travel, buy cars or redecorate their homes. “The average Porsche buyer nowadays is 58 years old”, says Sinn. The 43-year-old sees the target group for his magazine – readers in their late forties to mid sixties – as “people in the best years of their lives”. At Lenz, the German term “Senior” is taboo, because it has a negative nuance, unlike “senior citizen” in English, explains Sinn: “Nobody wants to be described as “Senioren” – it makes you sound just about ready for an old people’s home.”

The advertising world discovers the older generation

Even the youth-fixated advertising world is discovering the older generation, giving them nippy names such as “Whoopies” (Well Off Old People), “The Silver Age” (a hair-colour reference) or, simply, “Best Agers”, rather than “Senioren”. Nicole Siegel, who runs a Berlin photographic model agency called “Senior Models”, sees a change in attitude in the advertising industry. “The cliché of the white-haired, stiff-legged grandpa sitting in a wing-chair is outmoded; old people today wear their hair short and trendy, fall in love and can be spotted kissing on the beach.”Today’s 60 year olds find it easier to identify with this type of image than with the cliché of hat-wearing old men dressed in grey and beige, accompanied by similarly-dressed wives with perms. Many of those of retirement age today were part of the politically active generation of 1968 who grew up with ideals such as free love, the women’s movement and anti-nuclear protests, and are just as active today – with even more opportunities than ever before. For instance, old people without grandchildren can provide their services as a surrogate grandmother or grandfather through a grandparent rental agency.

Excluded from the labour market

Considering how active many older people are, it is hard to understand why they should be excluded from the world of work, with very few exceptions, by the age of 65 at the latest. In Germany, many employees have to clear their office desks even earlier. German weekly Die Zeit recently noted with regret that, despite a shortage of skilled workers, the employment situation for 55 to 64 year-olds in Germany is dreadful. Only a third are in gainful employment, it was reported – less than in most other industrialized nations.Just how much senior citizens can achieve, and the value of years of experience both of life in general and work in particular, is demonstrated by the “Senior Expert Service” (SES), a voluntary service of German industry. It finds assignments for retired skilled workers and managers with companies, most of which are based outside Germany. In the past 21 years, the “seniors” have supported more than 13,600 projects in 151 countries, predominantly in the economic and technical sectors. “The placements benefit both sides, the company and the expert”, reports Julia Haun from the SES in Bonn.

Demand for experts outside Germany

One such Senior Expert is Manfred Zimmermann from Paderborn. Two years ago, the 62-year-old technician was urged into early retirement by his employer – “Make room for the young engineers waiting outside the door” was what he was told at the time. Ever since, he has been a house husband while his wife continues to work. Zimmermann registered with SES to find out “whether I can still achieve success on the job front, too”, as he cautiously puts it. Although he really wanted to go to Africa, as he had worked in South Africa for three years from 1975 to 1978, the SES sent him to Malaysia for a month. “What we can do, they can too”, is what the tools and plastics expert discovered there. Even though he was not able to help all that much, the insight into the Asian corporate culture and hospitality was like a “crash course” for him, and Zimmermann is now looking forward to his next voluntary assignment in Bolivia. Here he will help improve occupational safety standards in mines, and reduce the high accident rates. Zimmermann has already negotiated with a German firm to have a machine that is no longer used to be sent to South America at cost price. When he arrives in Bolivia at the end of the year, the Senior Expert will show people there how to manufacture ear plugs and protective helmets. Next year he is off to India.Manfred Zimmermann has many plans. One source of inspiration for him was German bestseller “The Methusula Conspiracy” by Frank Schirrmacher, which he read during the humid tropical nights in Malaysia. The novel is about the historic opportunity for old people in future, who will soon be in the majority, to take steps to end ageist discrimination.

Christina Sticht
works as editor and free lance journalist in Hamburg

Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

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