Bed blockers and bigots: have wrinklies cheated millennials?

Saturday 28 October, 17:3018:45, Pit TheatreThe politics of the personal

‘Those who are older should speak, for wisdom comes with age’ Job 32:7
‘Rise in the presence of the aged and honour the elderly’ Leviticus 19:32

We have all used terms like ‘older and wiser’ and ‘respect your elders’. Throughout the ages, deferring to age and experience has been understood to be a good thing – formally at least. In more modern times, Sigmund Freud summed up his psychoanalytic experience as: ‘If youth knew. If age could.’ Freud is suggesting that even in non-religious thought, old age was considered at the very least to bring greater knowledge.

But something has changed. This came to a head with the EU referendum, when many more older than younger people voted to leave. It gave rise to public comments such as, ’The young have been screwed by the older generation… they have stolen our future’ and ‘We take pensioners’ driving licenses away – why not their vote?’ The Brexit result was called ‘a democracy of the dead’.

As Giles Coren articulated in The Times: ‘Don’t confuse the elderly of today with the elderly of the recent past. This lot didn’t fight a war …They didn’t live in modesty and hardship and hunger so that future generations might thrive. They just enjoyed high employment, good pay, fat benefits, enormous pension privileges, international travel, the birth of pop music and lashings of free sex.’ Ian McEwan (69), cheered on by Bob Geldof (66), proved that even fashion-conscious pensioners can spout bile about ‘a gang of angry old men, irritable even in victory…’ who by 2019 will be ‘freshly in their graves’ allowing a further vote on the EU with (they think) a different outcome. Some of the most politically correct people, who often would shut down any conversation that appeared to make generalised, negative comments about an ‘equalities group’, seem less inhibited when talking about older people who have been described, homogeneously, as a bunch of ‘racist bigots’.

Is there a wider effect of  such disparaging attitudes directed towards older people? One recent development seems to be an increased readiness to point the finger at older people as the root cause of various problems. For example, one cause of the crisis in the NHS is regularly said to be ‘bed blockers’, a term which always refers to older people, lying in beds that could be better used by people who really need them. Similarly, with housing in short supply, older people have been referred to as ‘bedroom blockers’ for wanting to hang on to their family homes. The understanding of many social issues as generational problems, as the young being cheated by older people, has led to an increasingly negative view of the elderly as a drain on resources rather than as individuals deserving of respect.

Why have society’s attitudes to older people seemingly flipped from respect to contempt – or do such views merely reflect the concerns of a vocal minority? Do we really get more reactionary as we get older? Have the elderly stolen young people’s futures? Do the young need to be protected against the insidious influence of their parents and grandparents? Is it sensible to generalise about generations?