When did it become OK to belittle older people?


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Recently I wrote about a highly qualified engineer looking for work just the “wrong” side of 50.

I described 50 as the “Rubicon” age for employment, beyond which few employers wanted to recruit. It seemed ludicrous that experienced, skilled people were being junked at that stage of their working lives. Ahead lay – for the individual – personal frustration and a curtailed working life, and – for the wider society – a preposterous squandering of skill and experience. Were we mad, callous or just blind?

Today, Dr Rowan Williams pointed out that regarding older people as a “problem” is the first step on the road to neglect or abuse. With older people now healthier than ever, the words “mad, callous and blind” scarcely do justice to the waste and despair created by ageism.

Its evil permeates the culture. The other day I saw a van nearly hit a not particularly old woman who was crossing a suburban street. The driver lowered the window. “Eff off, you old git,” he screamed, before roaring on his way. Had he shouted similar abuse couched in racist or homophobic language, he would have committed an offence. But the old are perceived by far too many to be fair game.

So what has happened? I grew up in the 1950s, when – and I don’t think I am looking back with rose-tinted glasses – the old were respected. Sixty years on – at a time when the “old” have never been so “young” – to grow old is perceived as inconvenient at best, not far short of a crime at worst. The origins of our changed attitudes lie way beyond the issue itself. We have made a cult of youth, beauty and “celebrity”.

Dr Williams, stepping down at a mere 62, argues that one of the consequent ills of the cult of youth is to “encourage younger people to forget that they are ageing themselves”. My baby boomer contemporaries thought they had it all: now they express shock that hip replacements are replacing house prices in dinner party conversations.

I was phoned today by a 92-year-old aunt, who runs a largish house, drives a car and is shortly (as for many years past) to offer house-room and hospitality to a huge family over Christmas. In March she travelled in China.

Dr Williams wants “hopeful” models who can persuade the young to think in positive terms about the old. Look about and you will find them. One in six people are over 65 and – if cherished rather than abused – an asset that no sane society should wish to dump in the margins.

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