Why 60 is the new 50 and ageism is so last decade

Australia's Foreign Minister is a swaggering new kid on the block.

Australia's Foreign Minister is a swaggering new kid on the block.

AUSTRALIA'S Foreign Minister is a swaggering new kid on the block.

After a mere couple of weeks in the role, Bob Carr's managed to land a quote-of-the-day by lashing Tony Abbott, spark a minor diplomatic crisis with Papua New Guinea and broadcast, in his maiden speech, a few modest ambitions, such as halting the rift between Islam and the West. At the sprightly age of 64, his ashen wisps combed over patches of scalp, Carr emits all the feverish enthusiasm and idealism and thundering impatience of a novice.

I imagine Carr had already come to terms with the idea of his career high consisting of a lengthy stint as premier of Australia's most populous state. I can only assume he was reconciled to the apparent reality that his enduring wish, a role on the world stage, would remain unfulfilled. There he was blogging for relevance, when opportunity came belatedly knocking.

His reincarnation is an inspiring reflection of the enabling times in which we live. How quietly exhilarating to see someone drafted into their dream job a moment before retirement age. No, make that ''refocusing age'' - no, actually ditch that term too. And while we're at it, let's also scrap the demoralising and anachronistic ''seniors'' cards bequeathed to 60-year-olds (I wager they'd forgo the odd discount for a more appropriate designation), along with a pension age so low it risks crippling our economy.

Around the time of Carr's elevation to the Senate, Paul Keating, in an interview with a German newspaper, explicitly ruled out any prospect of his own return to the political fray, although he did suggest he'd be a better leader now at 68 than he was 16 years ago. ''Because as you get older, you do get smarter,'' he said. That he felt the need to rule out a return testifies to the cultural revolution taking place. The undercurrent of ageism directed at John Howard when he contested his last election now seems so 2007.

To think of all the hours I've wasted beating myself up about not meeting what I had assumed were Key Performance Indicators for my working life. As in: ''I'm already 30 and still to make my first billion from a start-up.'' Or: ''I'm already 40 and still just the schlepper who has to meet her KPIs.'' These days I draw great comfort from the thought I might try my luck at a number of things, win some, lose some, mess up and start all over again.

The deadlines have been extended almost indefinitely, as we (and obviously I speak of trends) leave home later, study longer, couple several times round, breed in fertility's last gasp before falling over much, much older. The number of workers aged 55 and older with jobs has doubled in a decade, with one in three men in their late 60s still in work. Almost half a million Australians plan never to retire, and all power to them.

Let's joyfully usher in the era of second and third and fourth chances: the wisdom of experience ought to carry more weight than it has. We should quit asking kids what they want to be when they grow up, and quiz them instead on how they plan to reinvent themselves in their third age.

In her Pulitzer-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan sketches an interconnected web of characters, has-beens or never-beens, who are compromised, though not crushed, by the passage of time. These characters plot their comeback or their debut with ruthless cynicism. The novel sees a ''decrepit roadie'', a ''quavering husk'' of a man, realising his teenage ambition of becoming a pop star. While on stage in a dystopian New York 20 years hence, the character, feeling a wave of approval from a crowd that had been manipulated into attending his performance, begins to perform in a way that unleashes ''something strong, charismatic and fierce''.

While her book is rather dark, Egan, in exploring the theme of regeneration, also captures something of the zeitgeist. ''Time is a goon, right?'' a character asks. ''You gonna let that goon push you around?''

When cancer forced my mother to leave medical practice seven years ago, she experienced an anguish I found perplexing. I had assumed her workaholism largely the product of temperament, with background playing a role too. Then at a recent function a ''retired'' Melbourne QC slipped me a business card promoting a soon-to-be-open gallery. She told me the gallery was her new project. She'd given retirement a decent go, but it didn't entirely work for her. I wondered if running an art gallery had been her long-standing desire.

Meanwhile my mother, now 83, has fulfilled her long-standing desire to write a book based on her experiences as a GP, and I'm beginning to see her industry in a broader context.

The old-fashioned cliche of ''retirement'', in which people spent the rest of their days wearing slippers, weeding the garden and roaming the golf course, was always tinged with defeat. The whole scene needed to be phased out.

If life and work can sustain a happy partnership, why shouldn't it last till death do them part?

Julie Szego is a senior writer.

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