Taking pleasure in old age, and engaging in varied activities, is obviously an improvement on the era when people labelled themselves old when they reached their 60s.

Cambridge and Oxford (note the alphabetical order!) are about to meet for their annual boat race — the 160th. To my pleased surprise, our local paper, Cambridge News, after referring to the race, carried a fascinating article about another group of Cambridge rowers, members of a group called Camrowers, all of whose more than 80 members are “of mature years”, some of them in their 70s or 80s.

The group began as a scheme for helping people with medical problems to regain their fitness. Soon, however, its scope widened, and in 2006 it was registered officially as a boat club, aimed at people over the age of 50, and not merely those with health problems.

Reading about it made me think about how greatly attitudes to age have changed in my lifetime. When I was a child, my grandparents, like most of their generation, behaved, and dressed, like old people when they reached their 60s. People in my generation, by contrast, have continued to be active, and not to label ourselves as old by how we dress.

Earlier this year, for example, I was running a current affairs discussion group for University of the Third Age (Cambridge). By definition, U3A members are all “of a certain age”, but I did find it mildly surprising that one of the active participants in my group was 90. My wife plays table tennis with U3A, and again some of her fellow players are in their 70s or 80s. Not surprisingly, Camrowers now provides some sessions for U3A.

There are all kinds of reasons why old age is less of a badge than it used to be. One reason probably is that, because of improvements in medical science, people can remain in good health longer than used to be the case. Another reason, quite certainly, is that people are much less ready to label themselves as old, and cut themselves off from “young” activities, than were those of my grandparents’ generation.

This point was underlined in a recent report by a House of Lords Select Committee, which noted that “People’s definitions of what it means to be ‘old’ have changed. For a lot of people, being ‘old’ is a state of mind related to health and the ability to remain independent.” The Committee noted that the concept of ‘cliff-edge’ retirement, where people go from full-time work to full-time retirement at a set age, needs to change. The Committee declared that there is a need for the Government and employers to enable more people to work part-time — and be more flexible about when they become eligible for pensions.

Clearly, from a national point of view an increase in the number of people living longer does have important implications for pension systems, national and private. Taking pleasure in old age, and engaging in varied activities, is obviously an improvement on the era when people labelled themselves old when they reached their 60s, but one cannot deny that the pension’s implications exist. Care needs to be taken to get the balance right between advantage and disadvantage.

In this respect it is encouraging to note that many organisations recognise the problem and the need to tackle it. Age Action Alliance, for example, launched in 2011, is a network of organisations working in partnership to improve older people’s lives. Its vision is “to improve the quality of life through partnership working between member organisations and older people, creating communities where older people feel secure, valued and able to contribute”. Chairing a working group of the Alliance to improve attitudes to ageing, Gillian Peel, of Age UK Darlington referred to negative and out of date attitudes towards older people “which mean that society misses out on the huge potential older people have to offer”.

As I read about all this, my thoughts went back to the local Cambridge group, Camrowers. They are clearly a classic example of people not allowing their potential to be obscured or missed. Another classic example is U3A – very well supported and highly successful in Cambridge, but represented in many other areas, in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

Being now well beyond retiring age, I am naturally greatly encouraged by all this. I am certainly glad that attitudes to ageing — and attitudes of those who are ageing — are so different from those that obtained in my grandparents’ era.

With tongue in cheek, I obviously very much hope for selfish reasons that solutions are found to the problems identified by the House of Lords Select Committee!

Email: bill.kirkman@gmail.com