We must heed the sage advice of our elders
Old age is not what it used to be. We once sent people corny cards featuring pipes and slippers, and presented them with carriage clocks when they reached 65, so that they could count out their "declining years" a minute at a time.
Today, in the words of Andre Maurois: "Growing old is a bad habit which a busy man has no time to form." And while some seem to be born middle-aged, others die young well into their nineties.
As if to make us feel guilty about sneaking off to the golf course, a group of the world's most celebrated senior citizens took it into their grey heads to spend their weekend attempting to solve the political impasses of the world.
Can the Global Elders succeed where everyone else has failed (or not even tried)?
The idea was born from a conversation in 1999 between entrepreneur Richard Branson and singer songwriter Peter Gabriel. If the world is becoming a "global village", they reasoned, then it requires "global elders", a group of wise old heads who will do the equivalent of sitting at the crossroads in the shade of an old tree and resolving feuds. It was partly a response to the perceived absence of calm voices in modern international disputes.
In 2001, the idea was put to Nelson Mandela, the "eminence gris" best placed to pull it off. He loved it and by the time Global Elders was launched on his 89th birthday in 2007, a dozen names had been pencilled in. Five were Nobel prize-winners, including retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Irish President Mary Robinson.
The launch was accompanied by much high-flown rhetoric. In what sounded like a deliberate parody of the prayer of St Francis of Assisi, Mandela spoke of the need to "support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair". Seemingly intractable problems would be tackled "stone by stone". During their twice-yearly meetings, a symbolic empty chair is always reserved for Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi.
It's easy to mock the idea. One newspaper leading article compared the elders to the Travelling Wilburys, the 1980s band assembled by Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Roy Orbison by way of self-veneration, then suggested it could become "a makework scheme for ex-leaders who cannot let go". In truth, unlike its members, this body is too young to face judgment but does have a lot going for it. Because members give up their time for nothing, it has a certain moral authority. Unlike the UN, its members do not represent any particular country or institution. Rather, they are freelance diplomats with nothing to lose and unparalleled contacts books. They can pick up the phone to anyone. And, as Mary Robinson puts it, they can "amplify the voices of those who are trying to raise issues of concern that are not being listened to". They can also work quietly behind the scenes.
"Old age, especially an honoured old age, has such great authority that it is of more value than all the pleasures of youth," said the Roman orator Cicero.
In classical antiquity, the retired were so revered that society operated on the basis of "seniores priores". The elderly were seen not as "wrinklies" but priceless assets, always afforded the front seats at the councils of state.
Compare that with modern British politics, where Menzies Campbell was hounded from leadership of the Liberal Democrats after being shamelessly lampooned as a doddering old fool and Vince Cable, his fellow sixty-something, excluded himself from the running to replace him on account of his age, despite being perhaps the liveliest voice in the Commons. No wonder. We live in a society where the overwhelming majority do not consider "elder abuse" to be a serious issue and most are more concerned about cruelty to animals. We honour our 82-year-old monarch, while 3.5 million elderly people live alone, many in poverty and loneliness.
If there's a lesson to be learned from the cheery, upbeat, jet-setting Global Elders, it is that this is a resource that we waste at our peril.
Or as the French moralist Joseph Joubert put it: "Life is a country that the old have seen and lived in. Those who have yet to travel through it can only learn the way from them."
And so say all of us old "wrinklies"