Age rage: angry old Britons fight back

<preform>They're the poor relations of UK society. But they're mad as hell and they're not going to put up with it. Janet Street-Porter </b></i>predicts a pensioner revolution, while Julia Stuart </b></i>interviews five grey militants</preform>
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The Independent Online

Two weeks ago, fed up with reading about a "crisis" caused by an ageing population with insufficient pension provision, I wrote a piece bemoaning the fact that Britain's pensioners, far from being viewed as the national treasures they are in Japan, they are treated shabbily in every respect, are expected to live on a pitiful £105 a week, and, should they fall ill, will be kept waiting up to four hours in a casualty department. It seemed to me that our government, and to a large extent the media, wished to sweep the subject of pensioners under the carpet. Old people are either invisible or discussed in terms of being a problem.

Two weeks ago, fed up with reading about a "crisis" caused by an ageing population with insufficient pension provision, I wrote a piece bemoaning the fact that Britain's pensioners, far from being viewed as the national treasures they are in Japan, they are treated shabbily in every respect, are expected to live on a pitiful £105 a week, and, should they fall ill, will be kept waiting up to four hours in a casualty department. It seemed to me that our government, and to a large extent the media, wished to sweep the subject of pensioners under the carpet. Old people are either invisible or discussed in terms of being a problem.

Our state pension equates to just 37 per cent of average national earnings, against 45 per cent in the USA and more than 70 per cent in Sweden, France and the Netherlands - a shameful statistic for a government that prides itself on being caring and inclusive. I pointed out that when election time comes around, it's the "problem" people, the elderly, who will be voting, and Mr Blair ignores them at his peril. In Germany and America, pensioners have formed powerful lobby groups: one body of 35 million retirees sponsored the US presidential debates, and in Germany a radical pensioners' party, the Grey Panthers, has sprung up (slogan: "Justice for all generations"), which last year demonstrated angrily in front of Gerhard Schröder following the announcement of his decision to switch spending from the old to the young. And although it's been slow in coming, the same radicalism is starting here.

Forget the antics of UKIP and their celebrity patrons, the people who will really have an impact on who forms the next government will be the crumblies. And my piece really got them fired up - I received letter after letter agreeing with my prognosis. Jean Renouf, who can't live on her pension, still works two or three days a week at 70 and said that the general attitude to old people these days "was a total blank". Joyce Glasser told me: "Someone needs to mobilise the powerful grey vote because that vote is not being heard." The former DJ and television presenter Simon Dee is now a pensioner and is mad as hell, raging that "unless SOMEONE does SOMETHING the old [in the] UK will erupt into civil war".

Peter Gibson, who runs the Croydon Retired People's Campaign (fighting for Croydon's 50,000 pensioners) told me: "Keep up the anger ... the over-sixties are 75 per cent of the electorate and more likely to vote than any other group. The nearer the election gets, the more vital it is to say these things ... well done." Arthur Percival commented: "It could be argued that far from being a drain on the community, (pensioners) contribute much to it ... the work of most voluntary organisations is largely sustained by them."

The last time I received such impassioned letters was in March when I wrote about the appalling conditions in Britain's care homes for the elderly. Dozens of readers wrote to tell me they were worried, that unless they had plenty of money, they would be facing a grim future should they be taken into care. So once again, I make the case for treating the elderly with all the respect they deserve. Because if we don't, they will use their votes to remove a government they see as not representing their interests.

ARTHUR PERCIVAL, 71 RETIRED ENVIRONMENTAL CHARITY WORKER

We live in a society where we have a culture of youth and everybody over 50 is regarded as being over the hill and not really in tune with the way in which things are done these days. This is just not true of many people over 50. Old people tend to be taken for granted and tend to be used by society at large and they don't carry as much weight as they should. They are very often used by their children and grandchildren in a role reversal.

In the old days people of the older generation tended to be looked after by their children and grandchildren. Now they are often expected to run around after them and sort out their problems. There is nothing wrong with that, but it's another reason why they shouldn't be taken for granted and why they should be provided for in a rather more generous way by the Government. They are often called upon in effect to provide social services.

Old people are also treated so badly because they don't make a lot of noise about themselves. They are restrained and don't have a particularly active lobby like a lot of other groups. Pensions are inadequate. I understand that in other European countries the pension is related to your final earning capacity and it's something like two-thirds of what you earned. I'm aware it would be difficult to rack up pension levels quickly because it would have a terrible impact on the Chancellor's calculations, but I think he and his advisers should seriously think about some substantial progressive increase in the level of pensions.

To a certain extent people tend not to see old people. They don't very often have nearly enough buying power and today very often you are seen in terms of your buying power, particularly by advertisers. So I think they tend to be overlooked by society.

Younger people have a standard of living which is way beyond what their parents and grandparents enjoyed and that's excellent. But it means they can be seen in their cars and having expensive foreign holidays. The older people can't always afford those and therefore tend to be dismissed.

JOYCE GLASSER LEGAL RESEARCHER AND ANTI-AGE DISCRIMINATION LOBBYIST

I'm not a pensioner and I don't believe in using that word. It's a way of defining people by their economic status. In this country we have a history of keeping older people passive and hiring young people to earn a living by doing things for them instead of empowering them.

I think older people are treated badly because they are not in the workplace. They are not considered hip by advertisers and the media and they are not respected. They are not seen and therefore they lose status. Neither are they mobilised as they are in the United States. The Association of Retired People in the United States, which has 35 million paid-up members, is powerful enough to sponsor one of the presidential debates on television and politicians do not ignore them. We have the Saga people, who are well off and have nice pensions and go on holidays. And then we have the other side. We don't have anybody in the middle. Older people are polarised. One out of five people on pensions lives in poverty, while people over 60 have 85 per cent of the wealth in this country. The Saga generation - the people with clout and money - don't care. They are comfortable and they think their children will be. They are not going to be doing the lobbying and pushing for the people who aren't very articulate or who don't have the money or the belief that you can change things.

People are treated badly simply because they are not seen. If you look at modern offices you rarely see people over 50 years old any more. And you don't see many older people in the papers. This is the same thing that happened to black people. If you never see yourself on television or in the newspapers or at sporting events then you begin to feel socially excluded.

When the age discrimination legislation finally comes into force at the beginning of 2007 it will only apply to recruitment and training. It will not cover the provision of goods and services. That is an example of the Government being very afraid of age equality. There is still so much stigma against age - it's where racial discrimination was in the 1960s.

SIMON DEE, 69 FORMER TV AND RADIO PRESENTER

I think old people are treated so badly because everything is focused on the young - the sales techniques and television commercials. The simple fact is that there is no money in being old, so people just leave them to one side. The trouble is that we do all present an intelligence and degree of knowledge, which I think is looked on as threatening to those who are young, particularly those in a position of power and responsibility. You get cases now when you go for jobs and are told that you are overqualified. It's a national scandal if you can't get a job because you know more than the bloody employer.

The whole thing is insane. Most of the old are in homes these days rather than keeping them in the family circle. In all ancient civilisations the old were kept in the group, if only to ask for advice. We are disregarding the wisdom of the elders. Old people are treated appallingly. You try and live on £105 a week, it's just impossible. I don't have any other pension. When the phone bill, water bill, electricity and gas bill and rates come, you live on soup and sandwiches for four or five days.

A soldier will survive in the field if he adapts. You do exactly the same if you're old these days. We do tend to look after each other. We give each other hints in the supermarket. There are people who landed on the Normandy beaches who are close to starving. It's an absolute scandal. I don't know why people haven't lined up Westminster and shot the whole lot of them. They are dreadful people. In France they look after their old. You see them with their children and the whole thing is en famille. But over here it's not.

PETER GIBSON, 72, CROYDON RETIRED PEOPLE'S CAMPAIGN

The old are treated so badly because paying them an amount of money they can live on would cost the business community too much in taxes. There is not a shortage of money in reality. There is a £20bn surplus in the national insurance pension fund and government auditors say there is enough to restore the link between earnings and pensions for 10 years without increasing national insurance.

The fact is that while we are the fourth richest country in the world we have the lowest state pension of any developed country in Europe. It is on average two, sometimes three, times the value of what is paid in Britain. This is mainly because the governments in Europe have agreed with the European Central Bank (ECB) that they will reduce the amount of money spent on social services over the coming 40 or 50 years. Britain has agreed to reduce by 1 per cent the gross national product spent on social services. Now that doesn't sound a lot but it's 1 per cent of a great deal of money which means that the Government is unwilling, if it is to keep its word to the ECB, to provide the basic state pension which people need. We know that between 25 and 30 per cent of the people who are entitled to means-tested extra payments don't get them for all sorts of reasons, such as the forms being complicated or people feeling they are intrusive.

The point is all this is our money. It's not the Government's. From the beginning of your working life you have been paying money in every week into national insurance and income tax. Pensions are really deferred wages. When the pension was introduced in 1908 it was worth about 25 per cent of the average pay for working people, by 1958 it was worth 19.5 per cent, in 1978 it had gone up to 23.4 per cent and last year it was 14.7 per cent.

Because I have a reasonably good industrial pension I can get by. For some people retirement is a marvellous time. But for other people it's a time of misery, dread and fear. I think first of all we have to re-establish the link between average earnings and pensions.

If there are billions of pounds available to invade other countries, there are billions of pounds available to look after the old people in Britain. I feel bloody angry that there's a charade going on that says we can't afford it.

JEAN RENOUF, 70 FORMER ESTATE AGENT

I'm still working part-time. I was a manager of an estate agent and given 12 weeks' notice when I reached the age of 70. They had a policy of getting rid of people when it suited them. And so that was it. But fortunately I was offered a part-time job by a previous employer.

I'm very thankful that I've still got my health and strength and that there's someone prepared to employ me who seems to think quite a lot of me.

In spite of Serps my basic state pension is not really enough. I don't want to just exist. My pension, including earnings-related income, is £150 a week. And then I have a couple of company pensions which amount to £25 a week. It's still not very much. I live on my own as I'm divorced.

I think the way old people are treated so badly is an English thing. When I've been on the Underground it's always foreign people who give up their seat for me - Asians, Chinese. English people just look through you somehow.

Once upon a time when I would walk on to a building site everything would come to standstill and they would ask "What can we do for you, darling?" Then, 30 years later, you get a cursory glance and when you manage to attract somebody's attention because you need something it's "Oh God, what a nuisance you are."

Perhaps it started when women started going out to work. Before, when people got old, they would live with the family and possibly still have a lot of respect and consideration. Now, because women need to work, older parents have to go into a home. Consequently they're regarded as something of a nuisance. I blame the media. You still get Moira Stewart and Sir Trevor McDonald reading the news, but presenters generally are young and even newspapers don't pay a great deal of attention to older people.

I have elderly relatives six or seven years older than me, one of whom is in hospital and the other has had to go into a care home. Their house was flooded last week and they have had fairly scant consideration from anybody in the way of help. Once upon a time when old people were in trouble they would have been given help by neighbours.

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