by Kelvin Smith
The older people I know are not rejoicing about the result of the referendum. They are sad, angry, shocked. They are doing what they can: signing petitions, writing to their MPs, looking for rays of hope in (to borrow and reclaim the phrase purloined by the current xenophobic tendency) a country they do not recognise. An additional hurt comes from a feeling that, on top of this, they are being demonised; portrayed as self-satisfied and uncaring as they bask in their privilege of free education, secure pension rights, a place to live and a little money in the bank. The word ‘baby-boomer’ has become a term of abuse. ‘Pensioner’ has become code for selfish old bastard.
The principle of the secret ballot means that the British voting system cannot provide definitive information about the demographics of the ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ votes, but this has not stopped the press from putting forward as fact the idea that older voters were the reason for a ‘leave’ majority. I have not seen any statistics that explain this except for a reliance on polls that we all now know are unreliable. But then this has been a referendum based on lies so there’s no reason to think this should be any different.
It is time to confront this particular divide-and-rule tactic that politicians and media have added to those of nationality, gender, race, religion, education, and region. Blaming people because they are older? Think about it.
Let’s get free bus passes, winter fuel payments and TV licences for the over-75s out of the way first. Anyone who believes that scrapping these will solve the fundamental economic inequality problems in Britain cannot do simple arithmetic. These miniscule sums help some older people to stay mobile, stay alive and enjoy some meagre entertainment: they are a drop in the ocean compared to the costs of education that an unfair tax system has shifted from the state to the young. The potential savings are irrelevant when we consider the costs of the NHS and the cost of its privatisation. All of the winter fuel payments in the world would not build the social housing, the efficient transport infrastructure, and the energy system the country needs. When it comes to talk about waste of money, consider that the cost of a few TV licences would not buy even one teeny-weeny nuclear weapon.
Older people know they benefited from a free university education that’s no longer available in the UK (although still widespread in much of the EU, by the way). We know how successive governments have shifted the burden and are sickened by it. We know what’s happened because we have mostly helped to finance our children’s education, and older baby-boomers provide more free childcare than the state so that parents can work long hours to earn enough to live. We really do know how much things have changed and we are anything but smug about it. We are angry and dismayed and want to work with the young to change things.
We know how successive governments have shifted the burden and are sickened by it.
People who spent decades working in the public sector have pensions that allow them to live modestly but securely in retirement. This should not be something to be ashamed of, but should be an aspiration for all, a necessary part of a progressive social policy. Governments, like many a shady business owner, have plundered pension funds and put future pensions at risk. Lastly, the stupid phrase ‘pension pot’ — which sounds as if older people are sitting on a big chest full of gold — is very misleading and dishonest.
Saving the most contentious to last, it’s true that many older people own houses and many of these houses could be sold for sums that would have been inconceivable to these baby-boomers in their youth. The supposed value, though, is meaningless until they die, and at the back of many minds is the prospect that these houses will eventually be sold to cover the costs of chronic illness, care home costs, and post-NHS terminal care. The predatory companies that hover over the NHS have their eyes on the value ‘wrapped up’ in people’s homes as a vast new source of income and profit, there for the taking.
The word ‘baby-boomer’ has become a term of abuse. ‘Pensioner’ has become code for selfish old bastard.
Some older people are rich, it’s true, and some are very rich indeed. The tabloid press and most politicians never criticize these people, and anyone who does is said to be indulging in ‘the politics of envy’. Aged press barons and septuagenarian musicians, brand name sports stars and hedge fund managers, property speculators and ennobled directors of private and public companies are admired for their wealth and conspicuous consumption, while granny is despised for her annual holiday, and the chap on the bus who goes into town on his free bus pass is seen as depriving the young of a job, a house, a pension, and of a seat. One tweeter reacted to the referendum result by proudly declaring that in future he wasn’t going to give up his seat on the bus to older people as ‘they’ had ruined his future. I gather this sort of thing happens in computer games too.
The powerful stench of the referendum campaign used distrust and dishonesty to bring out a vote against difference, and many baby-boomers now recognise that they weren’t as successful as they once thought in reducing suspicion and fear based on difference. Perhaps as punishment, we have now fallen victim to a new manufactured division between people, just by getting older. At a time when so many are feeling the pain of the referendum result and trying to work out how to fight back, being told it is all our fault is, as we might have said back in the day, a bit of a bummer.
Featured image © Tolga Akmen / LNP via neckar-chronik.de