Ageism and us…

I’m a baby-boomer  – and proud of it. So why is our generation, the first crop of boomers (born 1946), being  attacked for  simply reaching our age. After all we protested against Nuclear testing at Mururoa – and eventually won.

We marched on the streets of every major city against the Vietnam war and helped turn the tide of political policy; we opposed South Africa’s Apartheid  in huge anti-Springbok protests. These and other rebellions also led to a greater recognition of Maori rights, the feminist movement and environmentalism. In short, this activism highlighted a range of  previously neglected social issues.

And it’s true that we could afford cheap housing on new subdivisions, but later we had to balance our budgets against PM Rob Muldoon’s 18% tax rates. We managed under relatively benign socialism, with no great social divides. We were the lucky generation.

We’re now the Elderly, an ageist term I’d never thought would be used against us. But as Covid-19 struck, it brought a secondary infection. Like Covid, it’s in the open, on social media and often reflected in mainstream media. It’s also spreading  with people and Governments often marginalising the elderly.

‘In the UK, attitudes to ageing are ‘overwhelmingly negative’, according to a new study by the Centre for Ageing Better, ‘with older people subject to a litany of damaging stereotypes’.

‘Attitudes to ageing and older people are mostly negative, according to a review of the evidence, with older people seen as incompetent, hostile or a burden on society’.

The report, which reviewed all existing research on attitudes to ageing, found that older workers are seen as having lower levels of performance, less ability to learn, and being more costly than younger workers.

Research by behavioural scientists shows that ‘the growing division between young and old also allows younger people to direct their anger and resentment about the situation towards older adults, who are clearly portrayed as the out group. This negative portrayal of older adults and ageing may affect younger people’s ageing process as they too internalise negative messages about old age and ageing in the context of the current pandemic’.

But there are other, often neglected stories of Covid. One is how the young have acted to serve and protect the elderly in this country. The Student Volunteer Army was out in force helping in all sorts of ways, from supermarket shopping to domestic chores. One effect was to bring people together and recognise some of the needs of the elderly.

It underlined the fact that even though they had grown up under the individualism of  Market dogma, their voluntary efforts were still thoroughly grounded in compassion. It took a pandemic to break down attitudes  about the old and  the infirm and what a heresy that represents to, of all things, that precious altar of  The Economy.

Author and philosopher George Monbiot wrote in his book How did we get into this mess? that ‘we are shaped to a greater extent than almost any species, by contact with others.’

In 2016, his  book wrote  that ‘the age we are entering, in which we exist apart, is unlike any that has gone before’.  And then Covid came along four years to prove it  and here we are, existing apart – yet together – sort of.

Covid will be with us for  some time yet as the race for an effective vaccine continues.  And  the elderly will  make up  a greater proportion of the appalling number of  deaths world-wide.

The last thing the elderly need before they pass on, is some media-driven generational war  at a time when  COVID is pulling us  apart. As the Beatles sang to us in happier, hippier days: ‘All we need is love’.

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.