Sunday, 25 April 2010

Meet the New Boss; Same as the Old Boss

Last week I like many of you sat down to watch the much anticipated second instalment in a series of three Leaders Debates prior to the forthcoming UK General Election. The quality of debate was extremely high, and expectedly so, and this was due as much to the standard of questions posed by audience members as it was the standard of candidates.

Many of the questions raised very important and difficult issues, from hot topics such as managing the national deficit to the forthcoming Papal visit to the UK. But in particular I wish to focus on an issue brought up during the discussions about pension provision: that taboo of old age. With specific reference to how we as a society look after our old people.

Over the years I have often pondered about the lives of old people and what it would be like to be old. To me old people are just young people who have around for a long time. They were like us once, young and with their whole lives ahead of them, economically active and socially important.

We see old people everyday when we are walking in town, carrying their shopping bags and shuffling along the street seemingly oblivious and in a world of their own. Generally speaking we pay little attention to them and them to us. I have always got the impression that they feel as though they live now in a world that is alien to them, and in many respects it is. They tend to speak of the good old days.

So what would your life be like when you are 80? Ironically, we will probably look back on these days now as “the good old days”. We will look back to now and think "god those days were the best" and reminisce about the days before flying cars and teleportation, when people had to walk or get the train.

Is it that absurd to believe the world in 50 years time will be one of flying cars? Maybe. But just think of how much the world has changed over the last 20 years, never mind in the last 50! The internet, mobile phones, computers, iPods, satellite and digital television, plasma screens, modern air travel that makes travelling to Spain seem as easy as taking a bus to the nearest town, the list goes on.

In 2060 it would be fair to say that there will be people of our generation alive then who will not recognise that world from our own now.

People often think about what it would be like to live on another planet – but not often about living on the same planet in 50 years time. In many ways they are the same. It could seem very alien. Change, although slow and steady, can often be quite radical and you could soon find yourself out of touch with modern developments very easily. This we have all encountered in some form or another- be it teaching your elder uncle about using the internet or showing your father how to use their new mobile phone.

To someone who is 80 this world must seem very distant and detached from the one in which they grew up in. They grew up in a time of Vietnam, civil rights and massive social upheaval. This world is so alien to them that many retreat to life in the safety and comfort of their own home, with interaction mainly limited to family members and close friends. This is what happens. I have no doubt that there is a generation of old people out there who are voluntary prisoners in their own homes. Many are too scared to walk the streets for fear of crime and anti-social behaviour. It should not be that way.

Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973) once said "Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members". How we as a society deal with the issue of getting old and particularly how we develop a society that cherishes and integrates older people instead of alienating them is vital towards social progress.

I would like to draw your attention to a recent survey conducted on behalf of Age UK (formed by the recent amalgamation between Age Concern and Help the Aged charities). The survey results highlight that older people feel alienated from society with nearly 80% of over-60s believing that older people are ignored by society. Additionally, 80% say they believe the views of older people were not taken as seriously as those of younger people. Around 64% said that retired people had not as much say as working people.

The point about economic activity and input into decision-making is very interesting. When workers get older and retire - younger workers take their place. That is how our society works and that is how any society in the animal world works be it tigers, apes, ants and so on. It reminds me of the adage “meet the new boss; same as the old boss”. Why? Because the new boss, i.e. young people, finds himself in the same position as the old boss did when he was new and the new boss must now set out on the very path that the old boss, i.e. older people, has already taken.

But sadly these findings portray a society where older people see themselves as alienated, ignored and not taken seriously. I am aware that this survey had a reasonably small sample of people so potentially it could be unrepresentative. But I believe that the have sufficient validity to draw generalisations from. The survey questioned 1,076 adults aged 60 and above online and the figures were weighted and are representative of all 60 plus adults in Britain.

This situation must change.

I have always believed the quality of a society can be measured by how it looks after the old (and it’s young). We must strive towards a better society. A society were old people are not left to rot in “retirement homes” or forced to sell off their house or assets in order to pay for social care in old age. These are points that were discussed at length during these recent televised debates, against the backdrop of increasing numbers of old people living in poverty in the UK.

The issue is a very complicated one and it will not be solved overnight. It is complexly multi-faceted. It needs addressed with a mixture of responses- some of these responses must be legislative, including rising pension provision from a miserly £59 per week, but some must also be much more practical and everyday, i.e. on the street corner. But whatever the form of these responses, old people need to be given more respect, dignity and influence in everyday life.

So if you have a chance this week, why not take some time to talk to an old person, be they a friend, family member, or somebody you have never even met at all. You could learn something from the years of wisdom. Or maybe the next time you see an old person struggling with their groceries outside the local supermarket you will stop and help them. But do something. Show them that compassion, humility and empathy still exist and by doing so you will show to them that society and younger people do care about them. It is not hard to imagine that one day in the future that old person will be you and maybe then you will feel just the same way as old people do now.

Friday, 26 March 2010

DUP: King-makers in North Down

Following months of speculation surrounding her future, the current MP for North Down Lady Silvia Hermon (above) has finally resigned as a member of Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). It was widely known that Lady Hermon had been deeply unhappy with her party’s official electoral alliance with the UK Conservative Party. The UUP and tories electorally aligned last year under the Ulster Conservatives and Unionist New Force (UCUNF) banner. Immediately after confirmation of her resignation Lady Hermon announced that she will now contest the North Down constituency as an independent unionist candidate in the forthcoming UK Parliamentary election.

Traditionally a unionist seat, North Down now finds itself an interesting political battleground between the internal fractures within Unionism - with media focus now on whether Lady Hermon can beat her old party and win the seat as an independent. I personally admire her ideological stand in opposing the UUP-Conservative alliance - but I do not fancy her chances.

But ultimately the interesting point in all this is that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has yet to nominate a candidate or confirm their intention to contest the North Down constituency in the forthcoming election. Although the DUP having not declared a candidate for the seat as of yet, I believe this to be a tactical ploy. You can bet that the DUP have been watching every development in North Down very closely as the Lady Hermon debacle has unravelled over the last number of months.

If the DUP decide to put forward a candidate the split in the previous UUP vote, between Lady Hermon supporters and the UUP party loyalists, will be enough to allow the DUP victory. If the DUP do not contest the election I suspect that the UUP will win comfortably. The UUP know this and so do the DUP. Media sources are claiming that the DUP have not put forward a candidate in order to allow Lady Hermon a free-run at the UUP, but I do not see that as the case.

I believe the issue of whether the DUP will contest the North Down seat is now a negotiation tool in the ongoing DUP and UUP narrative over “Unionist Unity”. Will the DUP trade a DUP no-show in North Down for a UUP no-show in Fermanagh South Tyrone? And vice-versa? There is much at stake in North Down for the UUP, including the future of UCUNF and even the future of the UUP itself. North Down, the only seat that they held in the current parliament, could be the UUP's Alamo and therefore they will be prepared to use any means necessary to retain it. At all costs. So it is very possible that they will be prepared to explore such "diplomatic" avenues.

I suspect some high-politics will be at play now over the next week or two between the UUP and DUP. If the UUP lose the North Down seat and do not gain another then their alliance with the Conservatives will be virtually in tatters and defunct and they will be left with no MP. It will be a devastating blow to the party. The major question is how far are the UUP are willing to go in order to prevent this from happening?