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Leading Article: There's no future in a Peter Pan society

We are the Peter Pan society. We are fixated with youth and give, as a culture, less and less to age and experience. But unlike the sentimental Victorians, whose "boy who would not grow up" was forever 10, our cultural clock stops at 16, or soon afterwards. The cult of youth infects all aspects of our lives, from fashion to politics. Throughout the media, there is more interest in the views of Swampy and the Spice Girls than in those of the old - who may be wise.

The so-called youth vote is considered a potent force, despite the fact that young people are more likely to be apathetic and irresponsible, and less likely to vote. Conversely, although older people are more interested, well read, better informed and much more likely to vote, "grey power" is surprisingly absent from British public life.

Yesterday, the three main party leaders gave their views to young journalists on the BBC's Newsround, the latest of several pre-election youth initiatives. Yet grillings by pensioners have hardly been a prominent part of the election warm-up. Even this week's debate about pensions was not about our responsibility to the present-day elderly, but about whether today's young people would end up paying more for their own old age.

Of course, this is an important issue. The main defect of the system of pension provision in this country, apart from its daunting complexity, is that today's people of working age are not persuaded or forced to save enough for their old age. Many do make adequate provision, but many of the less-well-off are going to be left behind.

However, it is curious how little attention is paid to the fate of the 10 million people who are already over 60. Roughly speaking, about one- third of them are reasonably well-off - indeed they include most of the very richest individuals in the country. But another one-third form the largest and most ignored section of the population living in poverty. They used to be a central concern of the Labour Party. But Tony Blair has said rather brutally of Labour's pledge at the last election to increase the basic state pension by pounds 5 a week or pounds 8 a week for couples, that it did not win his party a single extra vote. Unfortunately, this is broadly true - one of the explanations for politicians' lack of interest in wooing the grey vote is that it is much less volatile than others. Pensioners are not only better-informed about politics, but also more fixed (and often more Conservative) in their views. Their very loyalty allows party leaders to ignore them.

It is, nevertheless, not just a shame but a betrayal of trust between the generations that so many of the elderly have been treated so shabbily since the link between the state pension and average earnings was broken in 1980. This breached the implied contract under which a whole generation paid its National Insurance contributions - that they would share in the country's rising prosperity when they retired.

In fact, one of New Labour's least-noticed spending commitments is Harriet Harman's promise to make sure that the poorest pensioners get their full entitlement to social security benefits, which many are too proud to claim. Not only is this promise unpublicised, it is also uncosted, and could mean spending an extra pounds 1bn a year.

This is the least any government should feel obliged to do, and it is a pity that it came as a forced concession made under pressure from Barbara Castle last year. And indeed Lady Castle's passionate plea at the Blackpool conference was typical of the way in which we treat elderly politicians: she was idolised for five minutes and then politely voted down.

The cult of the Labour leader's youth does not help. Mr Blair is always "talkin' 'bout my generation". If you did not know that he would be the youngest prime minister since Lord Liverpool in 1812, he will soon let you know, talking about how, "to people of my generation", Marxist state control is old hat, or antagonistic industrial relations a distant memory. He comes dangerously close to implying that old people have no place in his vision of Britain as a "Young Country".

But the impression he gives rings hollow. The more he talks of his youth, the more he sounds like someone trying to recapture something he has lost. And this turns out to be nostalgia for an era when we were unembarrassed by a sense of family obligation. Mr Blair invokes a thinly-modernised model of a society based on the extended family, where elders are treated with respect and younger people take responsibility for them in their old age. His rhetoric of community is based on the rights and duties we first learn in families.

And this past is not wholly lost, as an ESRC report to be published on Monday shows. Family bonds are still strong: people stay in touch with their extended families much more than is often supposed.

No one is in favour of restoring the Victorian patriarchy, but perhaps there is scope for a rebalancing of our culture, for a little more honouring of fathers and (don't forget tomorrow) mothers. Not to mention grandparents, uncles, aunts and the rest. And let us not forget our pensioners in the coming election campaign.

And by that, we mean listening to them, not merely paying them. Age doesn't necessarily bring wisdom, but experience often does. A Peter Pan society is also a childish one.