Men are living longer than ever before. But, asks Sally Feldman, is that any cause for rejoicing?
Great news, girls! Another bastion of gender stereotyping has just toppled. For centuries it’s been assumed that women tend to live longer than men because of some innate physiological difference. Wrong, according to gerontologist Professor Emily Grundy. It’s got nothing to do with our hormones or our child-bearing capacity or our inner female strength. Her study shows that since the 1970s the gap between male and female rates of death has been narrowing. So much so that in some parts of the UK the number of men over 65 is set to double over the next twenty years.
And the reason, according to Grundy, is simply a matter of equality. Dying earlier is just one of the male-related habits we’ve acquired on the journey to liberation. We smoke more, for example; we drink more; we have more stressful jobs. Where once we all stayed at home baking cherry pies, munching chocolates and painting our nails, now we’re out there battling with the boys. And it’s killing us. But hey – that’s better than dying of boredom, I suppose.
And let’s be positive – getting old is bound to be more fun if both sexes are around to enjoy it. Retirement homes will become hotbeds of romance and passion. Dating agencies will thrive as more and more partners become available. And even if we don’t all survive into a fulfilling and energetic maturity, at least we’ll have a loving spouse around to nurse our ailing bodies.
Or will we? Men may be surviving for longer, but that doesn’t mean that marriage is faring any better. And remarriage among the over-50s is also at an all-time low. So it could be that, while some ageing couples manage to enjoy a long-lasting fairy-tale romance, many others fail to stay the course, or else, through apathy or habit, stick together without much joy. Like the elderly Jewish couple who, in their eighties, went to see the rabbi seeking a divorce. “Why did you wait this long?” the puzzled wise man asked. “We were waiting until the children were dead,” they replied.
Misunderstandings are a perpetual hazard of age gap romance. My friend Terry said his affair with Chardonnay foundered because she could never quite keep up with his ’60s references. “She only selected some numbers from Sergeant Pepper for her i-Pod!” he complained, outraged. “Doesn’t she realise it’s a concept album?” When he asked her what she was doing the day Kennedy was shot she looked appalled. “Teddy Kennedy’s been shot?” she wailed.
But, cultural mismatches notwithstanding, older men have always had a penchant for younger women, even if they can’t always keep up the pace. Remember the old adage that Charlie Chaplin was perfectly capable of fathering babies at the age of 80; he just couldn’t pick them up. Generation after generation of rich, powerful men have deluded themselves into believing that the adoring starlets gracing their grey-suited arms actually love them for themselves, watched from the sidelines by obsolete first-edition wives who’ve been abandoned for younger, blonder, more toned and long-legged new models.
Nowadays, though, it’s far more likely that those wives themselves will be seeking upgrades. Their men may well be living longer, but that may not always be a cause for rejoicing. For as women become more assertive and independent, they’re beginning to weary of older partners, with their liver spots, beer guts, snoring, inability to notice socks strewn on bedroom carpets, and general helplessness in the kitchen.
Hence the advent of the Cougars – women who prefer toy boys. Sam Taylor-Wood is a very classy example. Not only is her fiancé Aaron Johnson 20 years younger than she is, but as the director of Nowhere Boy, in which he starred, she was the one calling the shots. And who can blame her? Younger men, brought up by feminist mothers, tend to be far more at ease with emancipated women than their fathers ever were. They’ll happily play Grand Theft Auto with the grandchildren, think nothing of rustling up a soufflé for supper after a day’s paintballing, and they’ll put in time in the gym to tone those deliciously unwrinkled abs. As for sex? Well, 16 goes into 69, as Kathy Lette remarked recently, a lot easier than 69 goes into 16.