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.


  1. Great post, Barry, and very thought-provoking. However, as someone who is more than half way to 80, I do think there's another side to this. Older people must make the effort not to become isolated and should try to keep up with change, and not disparage new ways of doing things for the sake of it. The good old days weren't always that great. Also older people should accept that views on social questions like immigration and homosexuality need to change with the times. Where you are absolutely right is that the best thing for older people is to have contact with younger people!

  2. Thanks for that Jenny, it's an interesting subject. I totally agree: relationships must always go both ways. Older people must make an effort and so too must younger people. Intergrating older people more, and young people too (let's not forget the respective problems there also), into society is so so vital. We need to stop creating such a segregated society - rich people-poor people, old people-young people. Older people must look at changing with the times and challenging their previously held convictions and world views. Young people too must have greater respect for the past, and tradition. Old people look backwards too much, not paying attention to the present, and young people look forward too much, not learning the lessons of the past. We view (and fear) old age as a vulnerable and pitiful time and youth as the time of mental and physical dominance, life at its peak. I suppose part of the problem is that as we get older we always live our lives in retrospect. Life is always tough but I know when I am older I will look back on those days as the halceon days, even though I did not feel that way at the time. It's the same way that I look back on when I was 17 and think "god it would be great to be 17 again"! I suppose as George Bernard Shaw once said "youth is wasted on the young".

  3. Very nice post Barry, you should blog more!
    It made me think of my grand ma who passed away last year at almost 100 years old. She was born in 1910. From time to time, it used to make me feel dizzy to think of how society had changed since she was born, all the historic events she'd been through, and all the inventions she'd witnessed.

  4. Nice article, thanks for the information.