How ageist is our society – and why does it matter?

APPG Chuka Umunna MP

Yesterday I attended the launch of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Integration’s inquiry into Intergenerational Connection, chaired by Chuka Umunna MP. Its purpose is to explore how well our communities are living together and what we might do to strengthen the ties that bind us.

The research presented to the APPG demonstrates a growing physical divide between the generations. Children are far less likely to live in close proximity to someone aged over 65 than in previous decades and the levels of segregation between retirees and young adults has roughly doubled since 1991. The causes are multiple, complex and interwoven. The rising cost of housing has caused younger people to live in different areas from older generations; the changing structure of our economy means many rural areas are ageing faster whilst younger, urban areas are growing younger still as working-age adults migrate to where the jobs are. This leads to a loss of emotional, as well as physical, attachment to geographical areas. When industries that towns were organised around collapsed, the strong social ties to local neighbourhoods that bound together communities in previous decades also disintegrated. Mixing between the generations stopped being the societal norm that it once was.

We are leaning on one another less than we once did
— Age UK

Why does this matter? Because when we do not come into regular, meaningful contact with people who are different from ourselves, it’s easy to view them as ‘other’. We see this across race, ethnicity, physical ability/disability – and increasingly across age. We become prejudiced, even if unwittingly so. Age UK’s research demonstrates that the net effect of these changes to the composition of our communities is that ‘we are leaning on one another less than we once did’, making us more prone to anxiety, isolation and loneliness, which has huge implications for our health and social care services.

Whilst economic factors have created a geographical gulf between age groups, much of the media has exacerbated this issue with inflammatory reporting that gleefully perpetuates stereotypes. Bobby Duffy, Global Director of the Ipsos Social Research Institute, outlines in his essay for the APPG how the current generation of young are the most derided they’ve ever measured opinion on. Attention-grabbing headlines castigating overly-precious ‘snowflakes’ or ‘moaning Millennials’, squandering their disposable income on avocados rather than saving for a house deposit, do a grave injustice to a generation that is facing some of the toughest economic pressures the country has seen in years.

Meanwhile, many younger people are disillusioned with a political climate that they feel does not reflect them. If you are in your mid-forties or younger, the odds are that you did not vote for the current government or for Brexit. There is a feeling amongst some that their futures have been sold down the river by older generations protecting their own self-interests.

So far, so depressing. Yet Ralph Scott of The Challenge’s research shows that older and younger votes agree much more often than they disagree on most of the big issues facing our country, such as welfare, taxation and investment in public services. We just don’t realise it. Headlines reporting this commonality of opinion are much less prevalent than those about lazy youngsters or smug home-owning Baby Boomers.

People don’t notice that they have stereotypes until you ask them
— Jennifer Abiola, National Citizen Service graduate

And when you move from the macro world of political attitudes down to the micro world of personal relationships, an even more pleasing picture emerges. When different generations are brought together, our commonality quickly shines through. Several of the speakers at the APPG described how they’d witnessed intergenerational events creating a positive impact on attitudes towards age. Jennifer Abiola, a young graduate of the National Citizen Service scheme, pointed out that ‘People don’t notice that they have stereotypes until you ask them’. The multi-age activities she’d been a part of had challenged those unconscious biases amongst herself and her peers and helped all parties to appreciate their similarities.

Give people the opportunity to connect, regularly and meaningfully, and you destigmatise and remove the sense of ‘otherness’. We as a society need to get much better at doing this, starting as young as possible. My favourite anecdote of the session came from David Williams, CEO of St Monica Trust. One of the Trust’s retirement communities was the setting for the heart-warming Channel 4 documentary Old People’s Home For 4 Year Olds, which brought nursery-age children and older people into regular contact for six weeks and measured the incredible effects, not just on the physical and mental health of the retirees, but also the new skills learned, and the loving bonds formed, by the children. He explained how having older people in their lives had given the four-year-olds the opportunity to learn from their experience and to increase their confidence. As a result of the experiment, the children were often seen waving at older people in the supermarket, identifying them as potential playmates – people who could offer warmth and friendship. I find this such a lovely image.

Giving the youngest in our society positive perceptions of older people, and thereby laying good foundations for later life, was a key driver in the creation of The Together Project’s ‘Songs & Smiles’, a singing and social group for babies/toddlers, their parents and care home residents. The relationships that have begun to flourish in Ross Wyld Care Home, where we’ve been operating since July, are joyful to behold. We’re hugely excited about rolling the sessions out to new homes over the coming months.

I’m very pleased that the APPG has chosen intergenerational connection as the focus for its current inquiry and look forward to seeing the impact on policy that I sincerely hope the findings will have.

The data in this article is taken from Ages Apart? Ties and Divides Across the Generations by the APPG on Social Integration: Inquiry into Intergenerational Connection, 2017.

Heath and Kathleen
Louise GouldenComment