I have an idea for a fantasy novel. I haven’t finessed the plot yet, but it will be set in a futuristic city-state in the years following a cataclysmic era called the Inter-Generational Wars. The old were defeated and are now confined to semi-underground warehouses, allowed to dart in and out only with a special pass until a curfew descends at 8pm, when the young, enjoying the financial spoils seized in the wars, are out at play. The young must be spared the sight of wrinkly flesh and grey hair, especially in their places of leisure. Healthy olds with cosmetic procedures are tolerated in menial roles until they collapse from exhaustion and are carted off.
It’s a preposterous scenario. But it felt vaguely imaginable one Saturday night recently in a busy gastropub in north London. As 40-somethings we just about blended in with the very loud, overwhelmingly late-20s and early-30s crowd. But then, a white-haired couple in anoraks appeared apologetically, and it was like a scene from a Western when the piano player stops, everybody falls silent and stares.
Sometimes in parts of London it feels as if older people have been banished, especially after dark. The middle classes huddle in safe places for greyheads like the National Theatre. But you rarely see the easy inter-generational mingling that characterises life in other European cities. Social gathering places, restaurants, bars, entire streets, operate an age apartheid via the volume of music, the acoustics or the drinking policies they encourage. If you’re old, your choices are limited. If you’re old and poor, forget it. My neighbour Jean, who is 80, rarely ventures out, sticking to just one bus route to lug back her shopping. Younger occupants of my block get their groceries from Ocado, but Jean is excluded from that, as she’s not online.
Of course, London represents the extreme because of its scale and pace. But British society generally, with its cult of youth and celebrity, has attitudes about age so troubling they have begun to mirror the sexism and racism of previous eras. We’ve heard enough about old people left to die of starvation because the profit-driven “care” company left them off the rota, to know that there is a social care crisis. But how do you address it when in a climate of public anxiety about unemployment and cutbacks it is acceptable to accuse the old en masse of being parasites? Asset-rich buspass-holding oldsters rattling around in mansions they bought for 10 bob or whatever it was in the 1970s, may be valid targets for reform. But the debate is framed so much around the idea of generational theft, with a strong undercurrent of contempt for old age, that nothing constructive can emerge.
Britain’s unimpressive ranking in the first ever Global Age Watch Index released by the UN this week is a symptom of this. The UK does better than Afghanistan, where you are lucky to make it beyond 59. But what pride can the fourth richest country in the world take from failing to make it even into the top 10, lagging behind not just the Scandinavians, but bankrupt Ireland and Obamacare-hating America?
The study is not just about whether there will be enough hospital beds or care homes as the over-60s begin to outnumber the under-fives. We know there won’t be: the ONS forecasts that by 2030 there will be 50 per cent more people over the age of 65 in the UK than at present and 80 per cent more people in England and Wales with dementia.
What the index looks at is life in the round: work, incomes, education and what in UN jargon is called “an enabling environment”. This is about whether the old are made to feel such a burden that they would be better off dead.
In Sweden – the best place to be old – the elderly are spared the terror of poverty, because state pensions are decent. “If you’re a child, or if you’re old, it is paradise,” as a friend whose ailing mother in Stockholm received almost round-the-clock state care, in her own home, told me. What is so striking is that Sweden was not rich when it introduced universal pension provision a century ago. Today it spends five times more on its elderly than the EU average. Even poor countries like Sri Lanka earn praise from the UN. If the right choices are made soon enough, an ageing society does not automatically imply higher healthcare spending. Britain however, as a House of Lords report in June warned, remains “woefully underprepared” for the demographic changes.
We can debate the policy choices for future housing, pensions or work arrangements. Should employers give people with old parents the same leave rights as those with babies? Do we need a ministry of the old? But even debate is difficult when we’ve begun to regard ageing as a disability. We could start with thinking about our language. Why is every old person always “a pensioner” or a “little old lady” both of which convey pity but not respect. Our comedy betrays near-disgust for the old. It’s not so long since those Little Britain sketches predicated entirely on incontinent old people or Catherine Tate’s vicious old “nan”.
This week’s findings should shame us into a rethink, if not out of social justice, fairness, or even human compassion, then out of selfishness. Will we really want it to be no country for old men (or women) when it’s our turn?