Lots of work is being done round unconscious bias in society, especially around gender and ethnicity, teasing out those unspoken generalisations made about people who are not the same as we are. But one bias remains conscious and unashamed, and that is the prejudice against old people. Why is this?
Prejudice emerges when prevailing values are challenged. Our culture likes beauty, speed, strength and for people to stand on their own two feet. Each of these values declines for people as they age. Incrementally at first, and notably so, beyond a certain point. Face creams which can be found in some parts of the world, suggesting they can alter the skin pigmentation of a person, are rightly condemned as racist. Yet creams which suggest they reverse ageing sell out in UK stores. No-one calls them ageist, but they are. And we accept their claims with relish.
We tell people they look good for their age and admire old people who can still do lots of things and act younger than they are. But what of the converse? Do we admire people because they look the age they are or can only do the things you would expect an old person to do? Not really. We like it when old people act younger. Imagine having this attitude to gender and ethnicity. People would rightly be called sexist and racist. But no-one bothers with ageism.
When we talk about economics, older people are routinely described as ‘a burden’, even though they have contributed decades more to the tax base than the people calling them a burden have. The debate around assisted suicide raises disturbing questions about the value of human life. It may presently be focussed on degenerative diseases, but when a principle is established, it usually expands. Who determines whether a life is worth living? Some people have already made that decision. The late Mary Warnock, who was one of the UK’s leading medical ethicists said: ‘If you’re demented, you’re wasting your family’s lives - and you’re wasting the resources of the NHS’.
So much for the life of a person with dementia.
Pinning down the debate round ageing isn’t easy. After all, what is old? Thanks to medical advances, greater prosperity and better diets, people are living healthier, longer. Three scores years and ten is the new middle age. We would probably differ in the answers we gave to the age at which someone is definitively old. And every few years, we are talking about a different cohort of people.
When we talk about old people today, we largely mean the war generation. Those who lived through the Second World War and still, in many cases, like my father, were conscripted to fight in it. This generation is slowly dying out, however, and in a matter of years, the last person alive to fight in that war will become the new Harry Patch, who was the last survivor of the Great War. This generation’s values and expectations are different to their children’s. But soon enough, their children’s generation will be old and younger generations will view them differently.
There is much generosity to the war generation, because they endured great fear and privation and were bereaved of friends and lovers at a shockingly young age. Having contributed to winning a war, they went about establishing peace in Europe and prosperity through hard work and good planning. It is not the fault of the generation below, the so-called baby-boomers, that no such heroism was expected of them, but it also means they may be cut less slack when they are old. Baby-boomers are also, fairly or not, in the firing line of younger generations because all the things they took for granted – free higher education, life-long jobs with good pensions and affordable housing – are denied young people today. There is growing resentment, to which can be added deep concerns about climate change. It is notable that young people are taking to the streets on this issue. And they feel let down by older generations.
We may feel this is unfair, but life is often about perception, and those of us who are older would do well to be aware of some growing perceptions among young people. Political thinkers speak openly about the break in the generational covenant. This covenant is basically that each generation will work hard to ensure their children are better-off than they were in as many ways as possible. Younger generations now are going to be less well-off, on the whole. Ageism is a problem already. If resentment is added to this, we may find it becomes a scourge.
And yet, we all have our personal stories and for many people, this is about a deep love for grandparents who have been a fixture of their lives – loving them, spoiling them, making them laugh, teaching them skills, telling them stories. These stories may not be true for all, but they are true enough for us to build up a bigger picture where old people are more valued in practice than chronic ageism would suggest.
It goes without saying that the different eras and cultures of the Bible respected age in ways we do not today. There was particular admiration for the wisdom of older people, who were expected to share this and pray for blessings on the generations below them. Older people are less valued for wisdom today, and this loss has developed quickly. As the world moves rapidly into a technological age, we expect young people to impart the skills to older people to succeed in it. This may be the first time in history it has worked this way.
There is also a greater divide in values between young and old. Younger people on the whole are more liberal and older people more conservative in the way they think. The Brexit issue also laid bare some painful divisions between old and young. Each of these mean that younger people may be less willing to seek the wisdom of age. This is a shame. Not every older person is as wise as you might hope – we all know this from experience. But there is a big store of wisdom in people who have lived through terrific changes in their lifetimes, and there are many people who are worth listening to. And we need to create spaces in which they can be heard.
All the questions we have about ageing are going to grow, simply because there will be more older people in the UK, decade on decade, into this century. So we do well to face up to them, and not look away. The public policy issue over how to finance growing pension provision, medical and social care out of a declining tax base is huge. The answers are unpopular which means it is hard for any political party to address them, for fear of losing elections. And so the issues are kicked down the road until they become a crisis. And there are signs of this already.
Meanwhile, the Church has its own witness to make.
The Church is one of only a few truly inter-generational bodies in British life. When we meet, the age range can be anything from one month to a hundred. When we care about the children in our church, we become for them a big family in Christ that they will not forget. Not many afford this kind of love and attention today. The Church must never join those places which resent children because they get in the way, make a noise and do stuff they shouldn’t. If the generational covenant has been broken, what creative things can the Church do to heal the rift? It’s worth spending some time thinking about that one as a local church, because no-one else seems to be doing it.
Secondly, our ministry to older people will continue to rely on older people doing it for free. There is a huge amount of unspoken pastoral and practical care offered by older people to older people. We should never take this for granted, and should offer the thanks that is due. It shows us it’s not, on the whole, a case of younger people helping older people out.
Thirdly, we face big debates over how to use our limited resources in church. When we think of those missing from the community of faith, we gravitate to younger people, with good reason. Many young people like being called spiritual, but hate being called religious. And they see the Church as religious. We need to find new ways of embodying a timeless Gospel. The wisdom of older people here is not to try and stop this because change feel uncomfortable. As a former Archbishop of Canterbury said, the Church is ever only one generation away from extinction. We have to reach those currently beyond our reach. For the glory of God.
But we must not only think of younger generations. The mark of our faith is how much we value those who are weak and vulnerable among us. There are many younger people in this category – especially those stalked by mental illness. But there are a large number of old people who feel on the edge as their strength declines. And there are an increasing number of people entering old age who have no relationship with Jesus at all. If we value all in the sight of God, we cannot abandon them. Not if we want to be a Church that truly values age.
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