Although the concept of who is an old person has changed because of people living longer (is a 65 year old today regarded as an old person?), the stereotypes of old age (e.g. doddery, forgetful, incompetent and useless) have not really changed, and have maybe become stronger and more extreme than before. Why is this?
Firstly, there is the growing distance between youth or those under 50 and those who are 70 years plus - firstly in terms of number of years (when I was a boy the gap between myself and my 60 year old Grandad seemed enormous - but now with more and more children being born to parents in their 30s and 40s, this gap can be 60 or 70 years, not just 40 or 50). Secondly this gap has increased in terms of technical knowledge and the way different generations communicate. How many over 70s can use the internet to their advantage or mobile phones? There may be a growing number, but even the frequent users have problems with mastering the new technologies and often prefer face to face contact or the use of the old-fashioned fixed-line phones. This also results in a growing information gap and a giving up of communication from both sides because of the preference for different methods. The “info poor” older generations cannot speak on the same terms with their own children, let alone grandchildren or great grandchildren. Knowledge of the past, part of which belonged not only in books but inside the heads of the old, is also accessed in a different way today - instantly via Google, so why bother asking Grandad? In these circumstances it is easier to “depersonalise” and devalue the old, to lose contact with them and “put them away” in care homes. Furthermore, inability to use the modern methods of communication only confirm to the young that the old are stupid and on their way to being dimented.
The current political language about people not playing an active economic role in society is about them being “parked” outside the world of productive lives in homes and hospitals (“bed blockers”), where, supported by state benefits, they become merely a burden to the rest. The idea of parking people precisely displays modern attitudes to old age, but unlike for cars, there is only long stay or terminal parking. The old have to be “disposed of” in some way. They are unproductive and costly members of a sub-society.
If the state-economical view has fostered this ideology about the old, the young and those who are fixated with modern consumer values, sometimes take the language and attitudes much further. They see the old not only as burdens but as parasites who have robbed them of their own chances of a pension at 60 or 65. They also tend to see the old as part of the system that forces them to work harder and harder for less real returns. Many young comedians reflect and propagate these views of the old, stereotyping them as useless baggage, doddery diments or making them the target of malicious and outrageous jokes (e.g.drivers should try & see how many old people they can knock over in order, presumably, to reduce their numbers - this joke was recently told on BBC). This attitude is promoted by the media, which tend to avoid targeting gays and the disabled, but the old are fair game. If they are portrayed as being unjustly attacked, it is usually as victims of muggers, care-home workers or sex maniacs. They are in the news only as far as their being helpless victims of these attacks, what happens to them afterwards is not of interest unless they die. There are few good-news stories about active and capable old people recovering from attacks or disease, and making continued contributions to society.
In fact the media and the internet are changing our relation to history. Everything is now present and available, history as a narrative, a development of people and events is disappearing fast, except perhaps in films. Explanations, background and evolution over time has no place in the “instant news” and “click and go” pictorial world most younger people belong to. This also cuts them off from the narrative and development of real lives, and reduces the older generation, who are potential representations of these real lives, to objects. History instantly disappears as yesterday´s news, and the global scope of the news makes it impossible for “stories” to find place above constantly changing headlines. The internet reinforces this tendency on screen by presenting everything as equally available and interesting, and it decontextualiises both individuals and events. Internet surfing is completely the opposite of the linear development of a story, it always leads away, leaping from topic to topic, usually via attractive images or headlines, or stories that are rarely completed before something else catches our eye. This process reduces people´s full attention, empathy and concern - the news is so shocking that it better not be read in depth, much less understood within a historical context. This leads to another way of cutting off the old from the young: the former are history, dead and gone before they even die, as they have little connection with the ever changing screened images of the presented present we are all addicted to.
Furthermore, partly because of this disconnection with real lived history, the younger generations can more easily blame the old for the present catastrophes - global warming, the age time-bomb, even the flaws of capitalism, false idealism and the lack of political solutions - all can be laid at the door of the older generations.
Social and geographical mobility are other causes for young families to gradually lose contact with the older generations. The young have less and less common interests with their elders, and in many cases geographical distance and the pressures of modern family life, where both spouses are working, make visiting and maintaining contact more and more difficult. These types of dislocation lead to a feeling of alienation amongst the old and the inability to share real living emotions towards them by the young. Without regular face to face contact it becomes easier and more convenient to park the old away in care homes where contact is often lost forever.
In the atmosphere created by modern politicians, the media and the internet, and because of the oldest generations’ increasing isolation from the rest of society, personal violence towards old people has become more common, especially violence towards the old in institutions and hospitals. The violence is often perpetrated by low-paid, poorly trained workers who have themselves become victims of the economic crisis and see themselves as powerless to change their own lives. The only power they have is over those who are in their care, a power they abuse by resorting to ridicule and sometimes violence. Total power in those who in themselves feel betrayed and outcast, can lead to total abuse of those they should be caring for.
There are many things that are difficult if not impossible to reverse in this dysfunctional relationship between the old and the young, but there are things that can be done to improve communications and attitudes, some of which have already taken their place in shining examples of better relations. My next blog will try and answer the question - What should be done with the old?