Images of age – the challenge

At a recent meeting of the South East of England Forum on Age there was much discussion of the ways in which representations of age stigmatise older people, and the need to change these. I pointed out that, while statisticians and policymakers need to define “old” in terms of chronological age (commonly either over 50 or over 65), the term, as used by the media in particular, is a social construct, associated with physical and mental decline. Thus a healthy active MP of 65 is seen as a politician, where a man of 65 with declining physical strength and perhaps a chronic medical condition is seen as “old”.

There was also discussion about the need for a more coherent voice for older people in public debate and policymaking, perhaps on the model of the AARP in the USA, with the lobbying power of its millions of retired members and billion dollar budgets.

Although both ideas commanded substantial support there is an inherent tension between them. Many people argued that older people should not be treated as a separate group – if anything, the diversity of their life experiences makes older people are more diverse than younger ones. At the same time, they share key aspirations and needs with younger people, described by one commentator as the triple need for “somewhere to live, someone to love, and something to do”.

On the other hand, the idea of creating a separate voice for older people implies that all older people are bound together by a common interest, or perhaps grievance.  But in reality the only factors which distinguish older people are that they are more likely to experience poor health, and less likely to be in paid employment. For most people, both of these happen later in life than in the past, but the range of ages at which these things happen is expanding, so that some people are capable of doing things at 80 which others cannot manage at 50. Thus, when we talk about the distinctive needs of “older people”, we are really talking about issues of employment policy and of disability.

It follows that, if we want to improve the lives of older people we should be focusing not on their age, but on issues of disability and employment. In the first case, the problem is to recognise a wider range of forms of disability – to include, for instance, the effects of minor hearing loss on work in noisy environments – and recognise that many such conditions will be progressive. In the second, the issue is to reduce discrimination on the basis of age, which is already illegal, though common.

So should we be trying to create a “voice” for older people? If we do, do we increase the risk of intergenerational tension – strengthening the (largely spurious) arguments that the old are taking resources from the young? What would perhaps be more appropriate, would be measures to strengthen intergenerational solidarity, to reduce age discrimination in the workplace, and to tackle mild and chronic disability.

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