Ageing, in both mice and humans, results in the replacement of naive T cells by memory T cells. Chiu et al. now show that virtual memory CD8+ T cells, which are unprimed memory-like CD8+ T cells, develop in the absence of antigenic stimulation and constitute the majority of memory CD8+ T cells in aged mice. Using unimmunized aged mice, Renkema et al. found that, in addition to the maintenance of naive T cells, T cell receptor (TCR) signals are crucial for the emergence of virtual memory CD8+ T cells. Furthermore, the authors found that both a reduction in the number of naive T cell precursors and an impaired ability of virtual memory T cells to proliferate contributed to reduced T cell responses with ageing. These studies highlight a central role for virtual memory CD8+ T cells and TCR signalling in ageing-related changes in CD8+ T cells.