THE GREAT DIVIDE
A new apartheid is forming in society which few of us see with the clarity it is calling for.
The children’s charity Barnados sent out shock waves in November 2011 when it published a poll carried out on its behalf showing that 49 percent of the population ‘agree that children in the UK are becoming feral’. Nearly half (47 percent) agreed that ‘the trouble with young people is that they’re angry, violent and abusive’. On the face of it these were depressing findings. The truth may be less spectacular: positing a poll question with the phrase: ‘do you agree…’ inclines people to answer in the affirmative. The polling industry knows they can get the public to say what they want them to say by asking a question in a certain way. Nevertheless, the fact that about one in two people could not summon up the energy to disagree with the pollsters suggests an older generation takes a dark view of a younger one.
Among all the divisions that decent minded people strive to overcome both privately and publicly – racism being the most notable – there is a largely unobserved apartheid developing in society: between young and old. Imagine the poll questions above were for attitudes to an ethnic minority. A serious and anguished public debate would ensue about the perils of extremism. Where other prejudices are being challenged, ageism is casual and rife. It also works the other way, with the pejorative stereotyping of older people by a younger generation. There is evidence to suggest that people are clustering geographically around their age band. When coupled with the disbanding of the local extended family, this finding means there is much less contact between younger and older people today. In such a climate, where views are formed lazily through slanted media, misunderstanding is inevitable.
These divisions came to prominence after the economic crash of 2008. On one side are those in the baby boomer generation who are approaching retirement with mortgages paid off, savings in the bank and sizeable pensions to fund a tourist’s lifestyle; on the other side are the students leaving education with large debts, no work or low-paid jobs ahead of them and no chance of getting into the property market. This is not to say that baby boomers lack sympathy for this generation – some of them are family, after all, and there are indications that a number are risking later life poverty to give their children a hand-up – but the overall picture sits uneasily in our minds. As this younger generation claws its way to survival, it will find by 2034 that one in four people are over 65 and largely dependent on them to provide the tax base to fund their health, social care and pensions.
These dilemmas are not easily resolved but the first place to start is the recognition that some prickly issues are keeping the generations apart in their ignorance, fear and neglect. A new think tank inaugurated in 2011, the Intergenerational Foundation, seeks to promote fairness between the generations. It made a calculated splash on its launch with a report recommending a more efficient use of housing stock. Observing that there are 25 million unoccupied bedrooms in the UK, it suggested that older people should be encouraged to move into smaller houses to ease pressure in the housing market. This produced a resolute backlash from those who would stand to lose the most from this either now or in the future. Whatever your view of such a radical and uncomfortable policy, the vitriol it stirred in others shows we are some way from a reasoned public discussion on how to look after one another.
A Christian view of such a debate should emphasise the mutual obligations we owe. While their current plight is distressing, few younger people could deny they owe their elders gratitude for the care and sacrifice made on their behalf. Older people, with the perspective which comes from a life lived, begin to see the kind of legacy they would like to bequeath to those who come after. Age apartheid is neither necessary nor desirable. The Church is unusual among British institutions in being a place where three or more generations interact regularly with beguiling intimacy in worship, prayer and reflection. Any parent that has brought a child up in their local church knows the profound blessing of other people relating to their children as ‘family’, whether it be as ‘grandparent’, ‘father’ or ‘aunty’. This is one of its enduring strengths.
As the new age apartheid impoverishes our common life, the Church should become more distinguished in this witness, as long as it continues to provide space in which the different generations can mix. Furthermore, it might provide one of the few places in which a genuine dialogue can be forged about ageism and the flawed public policies which emerge from such negligence.
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