Ageism Is An Old Idea
My crime books deliberately use elderly leading characters, which leads to quite a lot of debate with readers.
Somebody said to me recently, ‘We really look after older people here – there are care homes everywhere.’ I was horrified by her casual acceptance of the idea that the best thing to do with older people is leave them in a home, but with the disappearance of the multi-generational nuclear family few choices are left. Attitudes around the world are extraordinarily different. In some countries I regularly see four generations dining together. In the UK and US the old are often severed from the young.
In the young-dominant baby-booming 1950s the idea of being old became something almost horrific. Superman, above, is still clearly as fit as a fiddle but now shunned because of his age. But if he fared badly, Lois Lane had a much worse time.
Old maid, spinster, maiden aunt – there’s no equivalent for men…bachelor? She ‘wasted her life’ waiting for her man. And lately a pernicious new tone has arrived from the US, with the ‘OK Boomer’ brigade calling time on an older generation who, through no fault of their own, found themselves better off after working for a decent wage in times of booming economies. This in turn has started an ‘OK Flakes’ movement going back in the other direction, in which Boomers ridicule Flakes for fretting over gender-fluid toilets online rather than getting directly involved in real causes.
If the young have less money than the old the economy switches its sales demographic, which probably explains the curious de-emphasis on selling to the young now – where are young designs, young grass-roots fashions, young art movements? Is repurposing your grandad’s clothes and adding black tights as far as innovation goes? In a country as cosmopolitan as the UK why are there hardly any black writers or young artists?
With the government shifting retirement to 67 – and eventually, it’s mooted, to 70 – I’ve been witnessing a new problem. Many of my friends work in media, the creative economy being one of London’s largest money-drivers, but most media companies start to phase out their staff while they’re still in their early-to-mid fifties. It’s illegal to dump an expensive employee and replace them with someone younger, but a lot of companies are finding ways to do it while offering minimal severance packages.
Why is there such horror of growing old in the West? To me, there’s one obvious answer; a massive lack of contact between young and old, when they have so much to offer each other. But a young woman I met recently told me she wasn’t prepared to listen to older people because they had sexist views. I guess learning from the direct experience of others isn’t essential anymore.