John Humphrys – Feeling your age? Should the State help?

January 12, 2024, 3:07 PM GMT+0

It was rush hour and the Tube train was packed to the gunwales. Like many others I was standing. A young woman lucky enough to have a seat seemed anxious to catch my eye and she smiled at me. I confess I was a little flattered… until I realised why. She was trying to offer me her seat. I was no longer flattered. I was offended and, if I’m to be honest, rather upset.

Did I really look too old to be able to stand for half an hour? Clearly I did. Or at least old enough to qualify (if that’s the right word) for a seat in a crowded carriage. I was in my early seventies when this first happened and it’s happened a few times since.

So why should I be offended?

Because I’m willing to bet that I am as capable today of standing in a crowded carriage as when I really was a young man. Quite possibly more capable. I get up at six every morning and run for a couple of miles around the astroturf in my local park. I barely sit down during the course of the day because I have a stand-up desk. I have a car but never use it. I cycle everywhere. I also have a modest gym and do weight training and vigorous exercises every day. My diet is near perfect. I gave up smoking 50 years ago and drink a pint or two of weak beer a week. I carry no fat and my GP tells me my blood pressure is that of someone half my age.

And why am I boring you with this boastful rant? Because of reports this week this week which apparently show that older people in this country suffer overwhelmingly from ageist attitudes.

There is a great deal to pick apart in a statement like that. First perhaps: what is “old”? To a small child a teenager is old. So let’s settle for “older”, which takes us to what Caroline Abrahams, the director of the charity Age UK, had to say about “pervasive ageist attitudes” when she appeared before the parliamentary committee on women and equalities this week.

She said nearly half of those over the age of 50 had suffered age discrimination in the last year. Even children as young as four are contributing to “negative stereotypes”. One example she offered was the way they responded when they were asked to do drawings of what an older person looks like: 'You get little drawings of an old lady with a stick, when actually you have grandparents in their forties. It goes to show children are picking it up.'

Carole Easton, the chief executive of the Centre for Ageing Better, echoed Ms Abrahams' comments. She agreed that the stereotypical views demonstrated by youngsters showed that ageist attitudes are prevalent across generations: 'If you perceive that there is a stereotype, it puts pressure on you to conform. We know up to half of people over the age of 50 experienced age discrimination in the last year. One third of people hold ageist beliefs. We have a responsibility not to pit one generation against another.'

The cross-party committee launched its inquiry into the rights of older people last year. Its remit: to examine whether discrimination and ageist stereotyping, like characterising the elderly as helpless or wealthy 'boomers', prevents them from participating fully in society. It will assess whether England needs a commissioner to support them and prevent discrimination. Wales has already set up its own Office for the Older People's Commissioner.

On one level it might seem bizarre for a nation such as ours to concern itself with discrimination against its older population. It’s not as if we oldies are exactly a tiny, vulnerable persecuted minority. For a start, those aged 65 and over are the second biggest population group in the country - outnumbered only by those aged from 15 to 64. Financially most are better off than we have ever been and demonstrably much better off than all those younger people who can’t even dream of owning their own homes.

Our pensions are protected by the so-called ‘triple lock’ and many of us have seen our homes, which we bought before the great price boom, soar in value. In my own case I bought my first house when I was 22 with the help of a mortgage from my bank. The mortgage was three times my annual earnings and the repayments were easily affordable. And once you’re on the property ladder there’s usually no looking back.

But of course discrimination is about more than more than just money – important though that is.

Ms Abrahams warned that ageism is culturally acceptable in this country in a way that other forms of discrimination are not. She told the committee: 'Those who view themselves as educated, progressive, in touch, will quite openly say something derogatory about older people in a way that would be totally unacceptable for them to say in terms of race, gender or sexual orientation.'

Is that true? Are we any more likely to accuse an older person of being, for instance, a “miserable old so-and-so” than we are to accuse a youngster of being “an arrogant young so-and-so”? I confess that I have been accused of the former more times than I care to remember (usually by my much-loved children). The same goes for the latter. Often by my late father.

But if the parliamentary committee were to get its way how would the new “commissioner” exercise his or her powers?

It is already against the law to discriminate against anyone on the basis of their age. When I started working for the BBC (at the age of 23) we all knew what to expect when we hit sixty. We’d have to retire. But I now have friends still on the BBC staff well into their seventies. Age is now a so-called “protected characteristic” along with gender, sexual orientation, race, disability and religion.

The Equality Act passed in 2010 specifies that we are ‘protected from discrimination’ not only at work but in education, as a consumer, when we are using public services, when we’re buying a property and so on. It is a long list. We are even protected if we are ‘associated with someone who has a protected characteristic, for example a family member or friend.

Given all that, it’s not obvious what new powers a ‘commissioner for old people’ might have that cannot already be exercised by someone in the ‘vulnerable’ age group already. Unless, of course, the real issue here is not legal protection but attitudes.

The Mail writer Tom Utley, who is seventy and still going strong, summed it up rather nicely when he described a reunion dinner he had recently enjoyed with a dozen extremely distinguished old friends who were in the same year at Cambridge. He conceded that old people are far too often abandoned and neglected in care homes and ‘seldom accorded anything like the respect and attention they deserve’. And he attacked professional comedians who “thoughtlessly ridicule people of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations for no better reason than they’re old’. But he also warned against ‘pretending that every one of us above a certain age is as quick-witted, hale and hearty as we were in the halcyon days of our youth’.

And he had his message for four year-olds who assume that all old people use walking sticks and the under-40s who express contempt for his generation: “There could come a time, and sooner rather than you expect, when you find yourselves on the receiving end of the mockery and disrespect we now endure, for one day you, too, may get old.’

So where do you stand in this debate? Do you believe old people need more protection against discrimination than they already have? Should there be a state-appointed commissioner for old people?. Or do you think they (we!) are managing perfectly well as things are?

Do let us know… and do tell us how old you are!

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