Reasons to be cheerful at 50

Life can become a lot cheaper once you leave your forties, says Stephen Swain

For those who - like India and the retail price index - had their 50th birthday this summer, the future holds more than greying temples and expanding girths, at least financially.

The newest crop of semi-centenarians have joined a mass of people targeted by marketing folk eager to grab the "grey pound". There are 18 million over-50s in the United Kingdom.

Although this country does not have radical movements such as the Grey Panthers of the United States, there is one group everyone has heard of, immortalised in Alan Bennett's bon mot "Saga louts", the legions of the beige- cardiganed and twin-setted enjoying cut-price holidays.

And with the end of price-fixing on electrical goods ordered by Board of Trade president Margaret Beckett at the end of July, Saga is moving beyond holidays and into the high street.

Or rather, into competition with the high street multiples, by offering discounts of up to 15 per cent on items such as camcorders, stereos and "white goods" - fridges, washing machines and cookers - via a direct telephone ordering service.

Saga promises a Hotpoint washer-dryer - Pounds 500 in competing stores- for Pounds 450, while a Panasonic hi-fi normally retailing at Pounds 330 will cost Pounds 281. A minimum-order value of Pounds 100 will be required, and each month a "Star Buy" will be offered with an even larger discount.

Saga will check on the age of prospective buyers at the time of purchase, and believes that younger buyers will not abuse its service. And there is no doubt it means business.

The service was originally intended for the four million customers on the Saga database, but has been extended to all over-50s, and follows its move into gas supply. The company is urging anyone with enquiries to call on 0800 731 9009.

A spokeswoman did say that there is no membership requirement. "That's a common mis-conception, even with our holidays. In fact the only charge is if people choose to subscribe to our magazine."

But middle-age brings more perks than a cheap fridge or washing machine. Advancing seniority also makes it easier to indulge expensive whims. A 50-something teacher will find that insurance for an Italian sports car, an Alfa Romeo 1.7 litre 16v, will cost him or her much less than younger colleagues.

According to AA Insurance (0800 444777), a 55-year-old teacher living in Winchester and with a full no-claims bonus, male or female, could expect to pay only Pounds 216 a year for fully comprehensive cover on a 1994 model costing Pounds 8,900. In blood red or any other colour.

But a male teacher, aged 22 and living in south London with only a year's no claims bonus, would pay Pounds 1,405. For a woman of the same age, similar cover would cost Pounds 1,316.

The older person would also find it easier to get a financial package on the Alfa whereas the younger teacher may be restricted to a relatively expensive personal loan from a bank or finance house. Hence the number of C-reg Fiestas in school car parks.

According to the charity Age Concern, in its new book Baby Boomers: Ageing in the 21st Century, earning patterns are changing for those born in 1947 and afterwards.

Working lifetimes will be shorter because of the combined effects of extended education, falling average weekly working hours, and continuing early retirement. Hence opportunities to accrue savings and pension rights will diminish.

Up to four-fifths of the first baby-boomers will enter retirement owning their own homes, but more are expected to still have a mortgage than today's older people.

Complacency about retirement income for today's 50-year-olds is misplaced, say the authors, because although some will be better off than previous generations, there will be continuing disparities between those with full work histories - and pension rights and property - and those without.

Moreover, the sizes of any inheritances should be similar in real terms to 1989-1990 levels, when a third were less than Pounds 10,000 and under a fifth were more than Pounds 50,000. For generating an income, or paying for care when elderly, such sums are not large, warns Age Concern.

Baby Boomers: Ageing in the 21st Century, edited by Maria Evandrou, Pounds 14.95, published by Age Concern, Astral House, 1268 London Road, London SW16 4ER, tel 0181 679 8000

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