Keep working (like a Rolling Stone)

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 August, 2005, 12:00am

Feeling a little old this morning? Perhaps a bit rough around the edges after a sleepless night trying to work out why the dinosaurs of rock 'n' roll - the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, the Beach Boys, Eric Clapton et al - keep wheeling themselves back on tour? They should have made enough money to retire by now, right?

Not being a rock star, but knowing that no matter how much I earn, I manage to make it all disappear by the end of the month, perhaps we are all in the same boat - facing the prospect of working until we drop.

Maybe that is the primary reason why the Rolling Stones - Charlie Watts, 64, Mick Jagger, 62, Keith Richards, 61, and Ron Wood, 58 - caused wonderment among their ageing fan base by this week starting yet another gruelling world tour.

To steal a line from their 1981 hit Start Me Up, which kicked off the tour in Boston on Sunday night, it is enough to 'make a grown man cry'. Mind you, with ticket prices at up to US$400, they doubtless will be crying all the way to the bank, or, if they keep up this sort of behaviour, the clinic where their impending hip replacement surgery will take place.

Anyone who saw Jagger and Richards at certain Wan Chai discos after their Harbour Fest show on November 9, 2003, would know that the latter is as probable as the former.

Such matters aside, the fact that the Stones and others of their era are still on the road and working as hard now as they were four decades ago is indicative of 21st century life, no matter whether you are - at the top or the bottom of the heap.

With global birth rates falling because children are increasingly being considered an expensive burden on lifestyles and an impediment to careers, populations are inevitably ageing. Add to that an ever-increasing cost of living, and the reality is a future of work and more work, whether to make ends meet or to keep countries afloat.

As a teenager in Australia in the 1970s, I grew up with the impression that the government would look after me for the rest of my life. In a sense, that was true - school and university were free, the cost of health care was minimal, and from the age of 60 for women and 65 for men, there was a government pension and presumably, the rest of life in blissful retirement.

Australia was then known as 'the lucky country', but that expression is no longer heard. The country of my birth maintains a high standard of living and social services remain good. But as in other developed countries, there can be no guarantees in coming years that anyone reaching what used to be retirement age will actually be able to stop working.

A major reason for that is an ageing population. Pensions and health care are expensive to maintain, which is why the talk in Australia, as in other developed countries, is of rolling back or even scrapping such government-funded benefits. Leaders in Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan have been worrying about that prospect, and South Koreans were given a statistical jolt on Wednesday, when they learned they had the world's lowest birth rate last year. Women of child-bearing age will have just 1.16 children during their lifetime, down from 1.19 in 2003 and 4.5 when such records began to be kept in 1970. Given this data, Koreans anticipating an end to 16-hour working days any time soon can forget it.

For those with hearts set on doing nothing but playing golf or fishing after their 60th birthday, this sounds a little depressing. But if the United Nations steps in, it need not be.

If it makes the Rolling Stones its ambassadors of labour and issues everyone in the world free tickets to their perpetual world tour, there will at least be something to look forward to in between working hours.

Better still, it will stop the media speculation every few years about whether the band is going to go on the road again or call it a day.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor