Thursday, 9 January 2014

Whole Family Policies

Jackie Ashley writes:

The old and the young are at war, and the next election may well be fought along these battlelines. From politicians to columnists, including in the Guardian, society is being divided into us and them – the selfish, short-sighted old and the poor, unlucky young.

When David Cameron announced at the weekend that he is keeping the "triple lock" on pensions and not planning to slash benefits for richer pensioners it was hailed as a clever electoral move – the old being more likely to vote than the young.

As a member of the commission on older women and a campaigner on pensions and caring, I might be expected to take sides in this battle. But the last thing we need is to start a proxy war between the generations.

Day by day we are all influenced by interests and experiences specific to our age at the time; if we are lucky, we go on to experience all ages.

Thus, it is true that younger working people are more likely to go abroad for employment in the rest of the EU and are therefore more likely to be Europhile than pensioners (though as it happens, huge numbers of British pensioners have emigrated to Spain and France).

Similarly, pensioners are of course more interested in pensions than people living on working-age benefits.

But from here on, the argument begins to break down. Because almost none of us in the real world are only influenced by age-specific interests; we exist inside a small web called family, and a wider web called society. That is what being human is.

Consider the argument about Europe and immigration. It's older people, more dependent upon carers and nurses, who would be hit first if there was a dramatic restriction on the qualified Europeans coming to work here.

And it's older people whose children and grandchildren may want to work on the continent as they struggle to find employment.

Unusually for a politician, Liz Kendall, Labour's shadow minister for care and older people, recognises the need for whole family policies rather than generational ones. She points out that people in their 60s, though "old", often have responsibilities to elderly parents as well as grandchildren. Politicians tend to segment people into voter groups, but family life doesn't work like that.

Kendall says that people aged 65 will often have 30 more years of life ahead of them, yet very little political attention is given to those 30 years.

"Imagine if people spent as little time and energy on the first 30 years of life as they do on the last," she protests. The truth is, though pensions are important for older people, they have much wider interests too.

The housing crisis, for instance, is not just something that affects young people. Older people in houses with lots of stairs worry about downsizing to a place they can continue to be independent in; as parents, they worry that their grown-up children won't ever have a home of their own.

Or take healthcare. Yes, the elderly take up a disproportionate percentage of the NHS budget. But who looks after them before and after they go to hospital? Carers in their 40s, 50s and 60s; sometimes carers in their teens. And who works in the NHS? Not pensioners.

Or take climate change. It is argued that the old – with few years left to live, face little "lifetime danger" from environmental ruin and so don't care about it.

Why then is it that so many campaigners against climate change are older? Perhaps pensioners, with a longer perspective, actually have a greater sense of the damage being done?

It is true that those born in the 50s and 60s were lucky. They often scooped the good pensions and enjoyed the fat years of rising prosperity that allowed for free universities and a steady growth of new housing. But that was because of economic success during the postwar boom.

Now times are tougher but the fundamental of social democracy holds good: an injury to one is an injury to all. Or as David Cameron put it, though he sadly didn't mean it, we are all in this together.

Diminished educational opportunities harm all society, including older people who rely on today's working generations. Poor healthcare rattles grimly down the generations as well as up.

What we need are strong and decent social values; and politicians brave enough to proclaim them.

What we don't need is a war between the generations.

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