we live in an ageing society, we are told. People are getting older. Well, everyone is getting older, until death stops that process. And we know that life-expectancy figures are meaningless. Life expectancy was about 40 in medieval times, we read, and we know that people did not, generally speaking, reach the age of 40 and promptly keel over. No, children died of disease, and so did adults of any age. Women died in childbirth and of complications thereof. Men died in wars and other kinds of fighting, and in accidents. This is why the two categories of people who did not do any childbirth or fighting, and who did not usually mingle with other people that much to catch diseases from them, namely nuns and philosophers, usually lived to very great ages, then as now. So life-expectancy figures don't mean that much, and I'll leave the actuarial stuff to, well, actuaries. But getting older is noticeable. Not just things like the menopause, that women experience between the ages of approximately 45 and 55 (52 in my case), which is for most of us rather welcome, but more subtle things. Creakiness when, for instance, crawling under a table to pick up something that has rolled into a corner. Pinch the skin on your arm and it takes longer to go back to its previous state than it used to. A kind of physical rigidity. That personally I try to combat with Pilates and swimming, though I know it will immobilise me in the end if I live long enough.
Not many years ago I used to say "If I had known when I was 18 what I know now I could have conquered the world." And so I could have. But I did not. And now I know a lot of things, and have seen a lot of people do a lot of things, and have learned some things from all of that. But because I have lived now for quite a long time, much of what I have learned was learned a long time ago. And that is what matters. Not that we have learned things, which may or may not be useful to us, but that we continue to learn things. About 25 years ago someone tried to teach me about floppy disks, and I couldn't learn it. Now I don't need to know about floppy disks, so it doesn't matter. But the Microsoft program I need to use at work requires knowledge from me that I must have, and so I have needed to learn something new. Without enjoying it.
When I was at school I worked harder, and spent more time, like most people do, on the subjects that interested me and at which I was thought to be "good" - languages mostly, but it could have been anything. People who were not thought to be "good" at anything understandably gave as little of their time and energy to school as possible. Education isn't done quite like that any more, but the effect remains. So a lot of the time I was doing things I was good at, or felt that I was, and I got praise from other people, usually teachers. Other kids found praise or respect elsewhere than in the classroom, but we all, or nearly all, found it somewhere. When I was 12 I probably spent about 80 per cent of my time doing things at which I was fairly competent. By the time I was that age my brother had begun to trash me regularly at table tennis, so I just stopped playing. Why play if you are rubbish at it? I reasoned.
At work I gravitated, as we mostly do, to aspects of what was required of me that I had some aptitude for. Bosses preferred this too. Of course they did. But as time went on aptitude became less of a factor and necessity more of one. We got "computerised", as they used to call it, at my then workplace in 1990. Before then I had never sent an email. There wasn't really anyone to send one to, even if I had known how. And although home computers existed by then they were expensive and did not really do anything, other than gaming, that you couldn't do with things you already had at home. Come the internet, a few years later, and boy did I see the point of computers. But I'm getting ahead of myself. You didn't have a choice. You had to use a computer whether or not you were "good at it" - and some were not. Since then I have spent more and more of my time doing things, using technology, dealing with appliances, with what seems to me a decreasing level of competence. I no longer have the choice not to do these things, as I could choose not to play table tennis when I was 12.
But look around you at people older than yourself, whatever age you are now. You will observe that as new possibilities emerge - smartphones, say, or those Dyson hand-dryers in the newer public loos - older people often express concern, criticism, negativity, or just simply refuse to use them. This is not just about technology, though it it is more obvious with technology because changes are more rapid and obvious. Textile technology for instance changes the fabrics we wear, but we don't notice it much, and the main adjustment we have to make is in the washing programmes we use - and some older people have difficulty with that too.
This is a natural tendency. If I don't try to learn how to use that new smartphone or hand-dryer then I'll carry on being competent at the things I do. But the downside is that I won't be able to use a smartphone or a hand-dryer. In the future I might be afraid to go into a public loo because I don't understand the hand-dryers. A few years ago there was a saying "When your landline rings it's always your mother" - because your friends ring your mobile, right? But now nobody much rings anybody. They text or instant message. Most people don't answer their mobile if they don't know who's calling. I don't have an answerphone on my home landline because there's no point. If I'm home I'll answer it, and if I'm out and my mother needs to speak to me urgently she can call my mobile. I use email for communication for preference, but my children, the younger to be 30 this year, use Facebook and that is how I contact them when I need to. If I had refused to use Facebook (unthinkable) I would have been cut off from a key means of communication with my children and with many others, not all of them younger than me.
So, I have to learn all these things. And that means I spend a lot more of my time being incompetent than I used to. I changed from PC to Mac at home less than two years ago, and I had to learn that. My iPad, version 1, acquired last year, came with no instruction book. It took me a while to work out how to use it, and I am still an incompetent user compared with a 12-year-old I saw recently using an iPad for the first time. But the alternative to (relative) incompetence is isolation and rigidity. I am learning to use my inline skates. If I fall badly I will probably hurt myself more, and take longer to recover, than a younger person would. But that is not a reason not to skate.
Incompetence is the price of staying alive. In all ways. And it is the price of fun. I am an incompetent inline skater, and I may never be competent in the eyes of the average teenage boy. But skating is fun. You can go fast, with the wind in your hair, and yet you are on your own two feet. By the end of this summer I shall be doing that.
We baby boomers are only just beginning to retire from work. I plan to retire at 70 from paid work, if they will let me work that long and if I stay healthy. But although being incompetent is no fun, I'll try and have fun for some of the time during the next 13 years. Because none of us knows our allotted day.