Tomorrow belongs to them

They are healthier, wealthier and more numerous than ever before, but does that mean they have more clout? On the day when the UN wants us to celebrate older people, Mary Braid investigates Grey Power

HEADSCARF billowing and handbag swinging jauntily from her, a cartoon granny expertly balanced on a monocycle leads us today into the fifth annual celebration of old age, the International Day of Older People.

The jolly little figure challenges prejudices about useless old codgers and redundant wrinklies and reminds us that the 20 or 30 years which now stretch beyond retirement should be a period of enjoyment, independence and self-fulfilment.

Behind it lies a warning: not only are older people entitled to a better life, they are for the first time in a position to make it happen, for they are dramatically increasing in numbers, much healthier and, according to some, never so wealthy.

We hear this warning often now. By weight of numbers, by better organisation, by their power as consumers and by their sheer vigour as individuals, the people of what is called the Third Age are said to be on the move. And yet there are doubts. For every positive, modern image of old age there is a flipside just as powerful. Monocycle gran exists alongside other pensioners only just surviving on the little the state provides, whose cries for more can be resented by a younger generation which sees them as a financial burden rather than a fount of wisdom and inspiration.

No one will deny the people of the Third Age the right to a comfortable, fulfiling life, but this is a group with many faces and many interests, some of them contradictory. Can such a diverse group really be a new force in our midst?

IN THE past five years, there have been plenty of signs that something is changing. Britain's Third Agers - roughly speaking, the generations born before the Second World War - have begun to flex their political muscle in line with their demographic progress. The over-50s now form a third of the population and the number of people aged over 75 is set to double in the next 50 years. Pensioners are now ready to take to the streets to protest against VAT on fuel or Post Office privatisation. Like other lobby groups they have a ribbon, in silver-grey. Last May the National Pensioners' Convention (NPC), an umbrella organisation led by the former trade union leader, Jack Jones, 82, held its first three-day pensioners' parliament. The Convention's membership has risen from 100,000 to 1.5 million since its formation in 1979.

Grey Power, which has been a familiar force in the United States for more than a decade, is mobilising across Europe. In the Netherlands the EU's first old people's party gained electoral success 18 months ago and in France grandmere and grandpere have been on the march, demanding free television licences and increases in their pensions.

Who joins the NPC here? The group claims growing support among older middle-class people who are worried by demands that they sell property and use up savings to pay for care, but the bulk of its membership is certainly drawn from the neediest OAPs. These people have something to agitate about, as the figures attest.

Of Britain's 10 million pensioners, 1.6 million and their dependants were receiving income support in 1993 to top up state and occupational pensions. A further 570,000 were estimated to be eligible but did not claim. In addition 1.5 million pensioners were considered poor enough to qualify for council tax benefit. In 1991/92, 40 per cent of single pensioners and 28 per cent of pensioner couples had incomes less than half the national average. Only 25 per cent of pensioners pay income tax, which means 7.5 million have an annual income of less than pounds 4,800 (single person) or pounds 11,876 (for married couple). This grim picture has its flipside. Eric Midwinter, former director of the Centre for Policy on Ageing, claims that the gap between rich and poor pensioners has never been so wide. As many as 1.5 million older people are now retiring from well-paid jobs, with mortgages paid off, children dispatched, and substantial occupational pensions to draw from. A significant minority are enjoying an unprecedented level of affluence in their later years, particularly those now entering the 50-60 band.

Here is the rub. The elderly span the class barriers, and while rich and poor can make common cause on some issues, their interests and thus their views can conflict.

Take electoral politics. Numbers alone might be expected to make British pensioners a formidable force. According to Jonathan Stern, political adviser with Age Concern, MPs are sitting up and paying attention to the Third Age, particularly in the 41 constituencies where pensioners constitute between 30 and 40 per cent of the electorate. "Forty-two per cent of elderly people voted Conservative at the last election," said Jack Thain, 73, former Tory councillor and one of the NPC's leaders. "That won't happen again."

Not everyone agrees. Despite their increased visibility, David Hobman, the former director of Age Concern, believes that the political power of the over-55s is exaggerated. Compared to the American pensioners' movement - spearheaded by the white-collar American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the blue-collar National Senior Citizens and the radical Grey Panthers - it is hardly off the political baseline. American pensioners first gravitated towards the AARP for cheap financial services, medicines and holidays but, unsurprisingly in the land of lobby power, 30 million members ensured that it soon developed political clout.

Mr Hobman says that in Britain party politics transcend the age barrier, and that young Tories become old Tories and youthful Labour supporters also maintain their allegiance as the years pass. Research by Mr Midwinter into the 1987 election seems to support this view, finding little change in the voting choice of older people in the run-up to polling.

Mr Hobman argues that the American example is misleading, and that it is a grave mistake to treat pensioners as a homogeneous group, attempting to find common ground between the wealthy retired and those who go without food in winter to keep a two-bar electric fire going. "The powerful voice of Jack Jones disguises differences in the older age group. It gives the impression that all old people are downtrodden when that is quite plainly not true, and older people resent it. The reality is much more complicated than that. God save us from an old people's party or a minister for the old."

Amanda Barnes, chief press officer for Help the Aged, accepts that the political clout of the grey lobby is small, but she believes in its potential. In her view, two matters unite most of the grey generation: a sense of being "written off" and deep concern for a beleaguered welfare state, the state pension and the National Health Service, of which they are the one of the heaviest users. Mr Thain agrees: "We're seen as a damn nuisance, as silly old people who don't bring any money into the country but drain its resources. We are said to be a time bomb. We are being made a scapegoat for the Government's economic failure."

If "grey power" does emerge in Britain, it could provoke a reaction. In the US, younger lobbies now complain about a bias - in social security and health - in favour of the elderly. They feel they have less job security and poorer employment prospects than the generation now nestling into retirement. They are significantly poorer than their elders and doubt whether their own standard of living will ever match that of their parents.

THIS PROBLEM of the burden on the young of paying for the old prompted the think-tank Demos to warn last week that inter-generational tensions might soon make age, not class, the main line of political division.

At the moment there are around four people of working age for each pensioner in Britain; by 2040 it will be nearer three to one. Moreover the young, it is argued, are now paying twice for retirement. Under the current welfare arrangements they pay - in a direct cash transfer - for the older generation's pensions, through national insurance. But that younger generation is increasingly aware that the welfare state is unlikely to fund their own retirement in the same way, and so it is having to invest in private and occupational pensions. The argument, which has cross-party support, is that there are too few young workers to support the rising number of elderly under the current system.

But those who witnessed the welfare state's creation and perhaps appreciate most keenly its ambitious and idealistic aims - to remove the fear of old age and illness - believe abandoning the state pension would show nothing more than a lack of political will.

Mr Jones is a passionate defender of the system his generation established, paid into all their lives and now expect to fulfil its promise of cradle- to-grave care. "I remember as a young man elderly tradesmen having to take on labouring jobs and work until they died," he said. "It's all an elaborate ploy to separate the state from any area of social responsibility. But I think young people do understand the need for the NHS and good state pensions."

That view is supported by Mr Hobman, who dismisses the whole notion of generational hostility. This is a time of rampant ageism, which has seen seen many thousands of workers in their prime dismissed to make room for cheaper, less experienced young people. Paradoxically, this gives almost everybody cause to feel some solidarity with the elderly. People who find themselves excluded from applying for a job because they are over 40, or even sometimes because they are over 30, suddenly have something in common with the over-65s.

One result of this is likely to be some changes in the law. Whoever wins the next election, the next parliament is likely to see a Bill introduced to outlaw age discrimination in job advertisements. The phrase "The ideal candidate will be under 35" may soon be consigned to the same dustbin as "No Irish need apply", "No blacks wanted" and all the various formulae used to exclude women from the workplace. Labour has already announced its own proposals for legislation, and Age Concern is seeking a sponsor for a private member's Bill.

THE true power of the older generation may be economic, not political. While there may be little sign yet of a cohesive grey vote forcing politicians to pay more heed to older people, there is certainly a grey market. This is now well understood by market researchers, who believe they have studied older consumers sufficiently to be able to discern five distinct types:

Thrifty Traditionalists (17 per cent; characterised as pretty penniless, readers of down-market tabloids who listen to local radio and prefer to pay cash);

Temperate Xenophobes (21 per cent; hate travelling abroad or eating foreign food, are heavy TV users and read the National Geographic);

Out-going Funlovers (20 per cent; magazine orientated, love travelling, entertaining people at home and eating out);

Apathetic Spenders (22 per cent; like the Thrifty Traditionalists but more likely to take on credit card debt, do not enjoy entertaining at home);

Astute Cosmopolitans (18 per cent; read broadsheets and Moneywise magazine, take foreign holidays and have most money to spend).

This awareness on the part of marketing people is beginning to filter through to us in a way we may not be aware of. Renault's Clio advertisements, featuring Nicole and Papa, are a rare success story of advertising targeted at two age groups at once. "The Clio was launched at the height of the recession as a small car with big-car refinement," said Douglas Thursby- Pelham, Renault account director. "In the recession older people had more money and the grey market helped to support the car during the first 18 months."

There was further evidence of grey consumer power last week, when Ford revealed a car designed with elderly people in mind. Yet the majority of businesses have been slow off the mark, according to Danielle Barr, former chairman of the advertising agency Publicis. Two years ago Ms Barr, 55, formed Third Age Marketing to cater for a neglected and growing market.

"The older retired market is unquestionably a very powerful group," Ms Barr said. "Sadly, it is one of the most polarised, with some elderly people who are very poor, but those who do have money have lots of it. The 50 - 60s have the highest expenditure per person of any age group. But for professionals trained to look towards youth, there is still a blind spot." And prejudice against age persists in advertising. "You will never see an old woman advertising shower gel," said one fifty-something product manager. "Who wants to see a body that needs ironing?"

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