Having posted on Monday about the civic university I duly spoke at the event this morning. Sadly, the post didn’t elicit any comments but the speech went down OK.
Age UK is launching an agenda for later life based around six challenges for government:
• Equal respect
• Support to be independent
• Enough money
• Feeling well
• Taking part locally
• Thinking global
(if you don’t understand what this all means you’ll have to read the full report)
I find it hard to disagree with anything in the Age UK document. I like, for example, the recognition that overall things have got better for older people. But rather than getting into the policy detail, I intend to use my 15 minutes to explore the question: ‘what is our core narrative about population ageing’. There are many difficulties about developing such a narrative.
First, there is what might be termed the psychological challenge. As I have written before, young people have unrealistic, and unduly negative, views about ageing. This is partly because we are bad at thinking about preparing for the long term (which is why, for example, the new Personal Accounts system for pensions will seek to overcome our hard-wired inertia by opting savers in and requiring those who don’t want to participate to opt out). We are also inaccurate in thinking about our future state of mind. We think that being old is like being young but with an older body. In fact, we adjust our expectations and desires as our circumstances change, and people over sixty are amongst the most contented in society. These weaknesses in our imagination are then compounded by the reliance of consumer marketing on using sex to sell. This reinforces the sense - which is also probably innate in the species - that people are of less value when they have passed the peak of sexual virility.
Second, there is what might be called the identity challenge. Despite the argument made brilliantly recently by David Willets that demography determines politics and policy, opinion surveys show that generational status is a pretty weak basis for solidarity, in comparison to ethnicity, class or place. Also, while we can talk about feminism or gay pride, the things that older people tend to think they have in common (the likelihood of needing care for example) are those they would rather not experience. Indeed, while we may talk about respecting the elderly, those who can afford it spend more and more time and money trying to avoid admitting their age.
Third there is the related political challenge. The case for society investing more in old age requires us to amplify the drawbacks of ageing while the call to confront ageism rests on painting a more positive picture.
In terms of campaigning, there is a relationship between age and issues held in common, for example, being retired, relying on pensions, needing long term health care. But arguably in these cases older people have as much in common with people who are not old (e.g. poor pensioners and other benefit recipients, elderly infirm and younger disabled) than with people of their own age but in different circumstances.
So, how does Age UK, or anyone else for that matter, develop a narrative and a social movement out of this difficult mix of issues? I can’t pretend I have a comprehensive answer but I would start with our psychological hang-ups.
Most of us will be as contented in older age than when we were young and more contented than in middle age. But both our hang-ups, and the way society treats vulnerable older people, mean that we dread getting older. This means we live our lives with a shadow hanging over us, like trying to enjoy your lunch when you’ve got root canal surgery in the afternoon. So – and this is the key point - ageism doesn’t just impact the old, it diminishes our sense of well being throughout life.
If I had Age UK’s marketing budget I would spend it on positive images of older life. I would tell people that they are likely to get happier over sixty. I would playfully point out that it is much more enjoyable being a grandparent than being a parent. I would have a poster of a hassled middle aged person trying to juggle work and family and with little time for personal development or giving back to society, alongside pictures of older people enjoying themselves, engaged, using their wisdom and continuing to develop. The slogan would be ‘relax - you’re getting older every day’.
Politically, it is by showing that getting old can be fun that we underline how unacceptable it is that so many older people are denied the opportunities of the third age by poverty, isolation and inadequate care.
Or perhaps we should simply rely on Plato "Old age has a great sense of calm and freedom; when the passions relax their hold, then we are freed from the grasp not of one bad master only, but of many."