It’s chucking-out time at my local pub, and the high street is full of idiots. They’ve all had a lot to drink, but they’re in no hurry to go home. They’re looking for a party, somewhere loud and lairy to go on to. They’d settle for more booze, but some speed or skunk would be even better. It’s a scene I’ve seen a thousand times, but lately something’s changed: these tearaways aren’t teenagers — they’re in their fifties and sixties. Meet the Saga louts, those feckless folk who refuse to grow up even as they approach old age.
Saga louts are a pain, and I should know because I’m one of them. I turned 50 last year, making me one of the youngest members of the tribe. The contrast with my son’s peer group could scarcely be any starker. When I was 16, I wanted to sign on the dole and become a poet (I achieved the first of these ambitions). My 16-year-old son wants to do his Duke of Edinburgh award and get into a Russell Group university. He’s never been to a rock festival. He doesn’t drink or smoke. Was it the way he was brought up? I doubt it. I reckon he took a good look at his adultescent dad, realised the bohemian dream was bunkum and deduced that hard work and abstinence were the only way to get ahead. Meanwhile, his old man is acting like a menopausal teenager. Why do we do it, when we’re old enough to know better? Why are so many middle-aged Britons so reluctant to act their age?
We have been behaving badly for a while. Pensioners spend more on booze than the under-30s. Fifty-year-olds are twice as likely to take drugs today as they were 20 years ago. This shift in lifestyles isn’t confined to drink and drugs. Sexually transmitted diseases are on the increase: syphilis has risen tenfold among fiftysomethings; the biggest rise in gonorrhea has been among the over-65s.
As if genital warts and filthy hangovers weren’t enough to keep us occupied, increasingly Saga louts are turning to crime. Last year the number of offenders over 60 jumped by 15 per cent – everything from fraud to drug smuggling. Last year, for the first time, the number of prisoners over 60 rose above 4,000 (no wonder one prison, in Portsmouth, has installed a stairlift). Last year one in seven prison inmates was over 50, up from just one in 14 a decade ago. The Daily Telegraph recently reported a surge in OAP crime in Cumbria; the Mirror reported a mass brawl at an over-50s football match.
The Telegraph found someone from Age UK to talk about crime and poverty, but I don’t buy it. I reckon this geriatric crime wave has more to do with the way these decrepit hellraisers were raised. Today’s emerging pensioners are the first generation of senior citizens who grew up in the permissive society, with pleasure, instead of virtue, as its own reward. This ethos of instant gratification has become a justification for all sorts of hooliganism — and now those disaffected youngsters are becoming OAPs. Raised on a diet of soft drugs and soft progressive attitudes, they’ve spent all their adult lives as arrested adolescents. ‘Have a good time, all the time’ is their self-indulgent mantra. And the older they become, the more embarrassing it sounds.
This contrast between conscientious youth and shiftless middle age may seem a new phenomenon, but you don’t have to look too far back to see it’s happened several times before. The most recent instance was between the wars. The 1920s generation partied hard and scorned conventional morality. The 1930s generation were determined to make the world a better place. This Kulturkampf is epitomised in the contrasting novels of Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell. Today’s Saga louts are a lot like Waugh’s jaded hedonists, albeit with worse table manners and much worse dress sense.
So how do you spot a Saga lout? What are their distinguishing features, their breeding habits, their mating calls? Well, drink is a big part of it, but you won’t find them in the golf club or the saloon bar. They congregate in those gloomy modern pubs designed to look like nightclubs, where they try (and fail) to blend in with punters half their age. They smoke dope and discuss the relative merits of its various varieties in mind-numbing detail. They dress in the same jeans (Levi 501s) and trainers (Adidas Sambas) they wore in their teens. They sport (saggy) piercings and (faded) tattoos. In a crowded bar, in a bad light, they could almost pass for trendy twenty- or thirtysomethings. Only when you come closer is the bald and wrinkled truth revealed.
Naturally, Saga louts have no connection whatsoever with Saga plc, that blameless provider of first-class holidays to millions of impeccably behaved people over 50. A Saga lout wouldn’t dream of going on a Saga holiday — they think they’re too rebellious. In fact, they’re far more conformist than they know. They’re those baby boomers, born between 1945 and 1965, who turned 18 between 1963 (when sexual intercourse began, according to Larkin) and 1983 (when Saga magazine first appeared). When my mother turned 50, she took my grandad on a Saga holiday. When I turned 50, did I take my mum on a Saga holiday? Of course not. I went out and got hog-whimperingly drunk.
What does the future hold for us Saga louts? What are our long-term prospects? What will we do when we’re too old to party — even with people our own age? Will there be fistfights between rival drug dealers in old folks’ homes? I fear there’s no hope for us, but at least the younger generation aren’t so self-absorbed. This summer, while the Saga louts make their annual pilgrimages to Glastonbury and the Isle of Wight to pay homage to wizened old rockers like Iggy Pop and Status Quo (all nearly 70), my son will be on an Outward Bound course, before knuckling down to his science A-levels. Me? I’ll be down the pub, knocking back snakebites and moaning about the good old days when teenagers could afford to be rebellious, and grown-ups were grown up enough to give them something to rebel against.