Nipping ageism in the bud


Back to work day for those of us who enjoyed a two week festive break. All the ‘year to come’ reviews for 2009 are pretty gloomy, although there is a continuing thread of commentary suggesting that we might grow from adversity, in particular by looking beyond the failed God of consumerism (a theme explored by this blog several months ago). The RSA aims both to engage with the post credit crunch zeitgeist whilst also bucking the trend of pessimism and retrenchment. We have great ambitions for 2009 as a defining year for a new RSA, to which I will return in future postings.

While on the RSA I was fascinated by pre-Christmas exchanges on the Today programme about population ageing and ageism. In a long interview covering many issues, Martin Amis warned that the baby boomers would be a deeply resented generation when we reach old age. On the one hand, we will be perceived to be uniquely privileged with our relatively high occupational pensions and the money we have made from pricing younger generations out of the housing market. On the other hand, the sheer number of us greying society and demanding ever more health and social care will feel like a drag anchor on social progress.

When David Willetts and Richard Reeves discussed Amis’ comments they agreed that the dangers of inter generational resentment and conflict are exacerbated by the tendency in society to segregate different age groups. For example, think how much time teenagers, and twenty-somethings spend together publicly and on-line in comparison to how little time they choose to spend with their parents’ and grandparents’ generation.

I’m not sure what the broader social trends tell us about this hypothesis. Is it even true? There certainly seem to be some counterfactuals. Housing and education costs now mean more young people have to stay at home well into their twenties. Also, more and more people in their forties, fifties and sixties are trying to stay up with the latest fashions, gizmos and popular culture. If people are age segregating is it simply because they now have the choice, or do social pressures such as marketing create and reinforce age stereotyping?

Anyway, the RSA is doing its bit. One of the many innovations in our Academy is vertical tutor groups (many other schools are trying these out too). These groups bring together students from year seven right through to the sixth form. At our last governors' meeting the students told us how much they enjoyed the new groups, which give older students a sense of responsibility and leadership and younger students valuable support and advice as they set out on secondary school.

These groups may only cover six years of school but as any parent knows the gap in experience and development between an eleven and a seventeen year old feels just as big as between a thirty five year old and seventy year old. So hopefully our Academy’s way of organising will help nip in the bud age-related intolerance and misunderstanding.

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