Joyce McMillan: Reject the demonisation of the old

Favouring the young at the expense of the old is a dangerous road to go down for all sections of society. Picture: Getty

Favouring the young at the expense of the old is a dangerous road to go down for all sections of society. Picture: Getty

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Those advocating ‘generational justice’ to favour the young are playing a foolish blame game, argues Joyce McMillan

ANOTHER week in British politics, another raft of evidence of how easy we now find it to dismiss, demonise, and generally treat as a bit less than human those in our society who are vulnerable, easily identified, and not in a position to fight back. At Yarl’s Wood detention centre for migrants, for example, members of staff apparently feel justified in thinking of the people in their care as “animals” who need to be “beaten” into submission. In East Oxfordshire, some hundreds of young girls, demonised as “difficult” and “antisocial” because of bad behaviour in their teens, are simply not heard when they try to complain of being groomed into shocking sexual abuse, amounting to child rape.

Of all the scapegoating efforts that now make up so much of our daily political narrative, though, there is none more depressing than the current sniping campaign against the elderly, simply for being the age they are, and therefore reflecting, in the texture of their lives, the trajectory of British society over the last 60 years. This week, the “intergenerational justice” merchants were at it again, when the latest series of earnings figures for the UK revealed that, while average real incomes have now returned to 2007 levels, after the long squeeze following the financial crash, those of working age are still worse off than they were eight years ago, and those between 20 and 30 are more than 7 per cent worse off.

Pensioners, on the other hand, can now expect to be a couple of percentage points better off than in 2007; cue another round of hints that it must be time to stop “cosseting” the baby-boomers of the postwar era, who – the story goes – were able to benefit from free university education and student grants, who climbed easily on to the property ladder, who enjoyed stable employment and retired on index-linked final-salary pensions, and now sit around on their fat incomes, revelling in the fact that – because of their cheeky habit of turning up to vote – governments dare not remove from them any of the other benefits they enjoy, such as free bus passes and winter fuel payments.

And the point about this particular myth is that it contains enough truth to be spectacularly dangerous to those pensioners who are not – despite their age – laughing all the way to the bank. For if you look at the reality of the lives of today’s over-60s, it immediately becomes obvious that the range of experience is vast, from the serious wealth of the business and financial elites, to the dismal poverty, both financial and emotional, of basic-income pensioners struggling alone with infirmity in badly-heated houses and flats, or living in low-quality care homes, often looked after – in both cases – by abysmally ill-paid staff, whose conditions of work are a slow-burning national scandal.

And even where over-60s are well, vigorous and blessed with a sufficient income, the idea that they are simply enjoying their luck, and turning their back on the struggling younger generation seems to me inaccurate to the point of absurdity. Indeed as one who, 40 years ago, was able to leave my parents’ home at 18 and never ask them for a penny again, I find myself constantly shocked by the huge amounts of money middle-aged parents are now expected to find, both to support their children at university, and to provide massive deposits for first homes.

Add to that the whole hidden but economically essential world of free grand-parental childcare, and you have a picture of a generation which was indeed lucky to be born into British society in kinder and more far-sighted times, but which is often engaged, now, in giving back hand over fist, not least through incalculable levels of help to children and grandchildren betrayed by a generation of politicians who somehow convinced themselves that they could make British society “richer” by bearing down on the real wages and security of ordinary workers, while allowing property prices to soar out of control.

And the most frightening thing about the “generation war” narrative is not only the dangerous injustice it does to the 1.6 million British pensioners who are still living in poverty, but the licence it gives to a culture which is already rife with toxic forms of body obsession, and often simmering with ill-suppressed hostility to those who are no longer young, strong, beautiful and perfect. There’s a sense that in our hard-pressed society, sold on the “austerity myth” which tells us that we can no longer afford generously funded public services, people are only too eager to find groups that can be re-defined as “undeserving”; and old people, whose pensions make up the vast bulk of the social security budget, are fast becoming an obvious target.

There’s a thesis to be written, perhaps, about how the logic of a politics dedicated to public spending cuts, and the reduction of the public sphere, leads inexorably towards this kind of legitimised cruelty and mean-mindedness. What’s clear about our old people, though, is also true of all other “scapegoat” groups: that the significant divide is not between the old and the young, but between the wealthy and the rest. And as I look at my little bus pass – which I could do without, but which I treasure as a small reward for a lifetime of dutiful tax-paying – I also know this; that it’s better to offer universal benefits that bind our society together, and to ask the better-off to pay back through the tax system, than to abolish universal benefits, and turn state provision into a ghetto for the poor.

Unless, of course, you actively want to loosen the bonds of society, and to diminish the sense of social security and solidarity that people tend to value ever more, as their physical strength declines. In which case, your politics are not mine. And if that makes me a baby boomer, and a child of the postwar age, then I am proud to be so; and determined, despite all that has happened since 1979, to seek to pass on to the next generation as many as possible of the benefits we enjoyed, and which the vast majority of us also learned to value, and to love.

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