Second Opinion: Ageism develops a nasty twist
One of the objectives of the National Positive Ageing Strategy 2013 (NPAS) is to combat ageism “by encouraging the media and other opinion-making actors to give an age-balanced image of society”.
Despite this, ageism has recently developed an insidious and sinister twist.
Now, according to the NPAS, older people are stereotyped as being either “sick, disabled, non-contributors to society” or as “healthy, financially secure, and taking advantage of State benefits that they can afford to pay for themselves”.
The term “intergenerational conflict” has become part of public discourse, implying that older and younger people are in conflict about how income is distributed in society.
In the US, older people are often referred to as “greedy geezers” because they are seen as taking more than their fair share of social welfare benefits. In Ireland, media commentators constantly refer to the unsustainable burden of older people’s healthcare and the cost of State pensions. In fact, only 5 per cent of people over 75 are in receipt of the Nursing Home Support Service or Fair Deal.
Ageism hit a new low when the Economic and Social Research Institute published a Research Note, Younger and Older Households in the Crisis, showing that the banking collapse affected younger and older households differently. In households where the reference person was under 45, real disposable income decreased by 14 per cent and real consumption decreased by 25 per cent.
Media commentators, including Prime Time, immediately picked up on this apparent unfairness. The report’s conclusion, “younger and older households earned and spent about the same sums in 2009/2010”, was completely ignored, thus feeding into the idea of an intergenerational problem when there isn’t one.
Older people need less
The impression given is that older people do not need the same income as younger people. Being old they need less, and they are having a great life at the expense of younger people.
Having been told to age actively since the publication of The Years Ahead in 1988, older people now have it so good that all benefits must be taken back and redistributed to the younger generation. They are portrayed as spending their children’s inheritance.
No one said, “Perhaps younger people were buying things they didn’t need during the boom,” or “Isn’t it great that older people now have the same amount to spend as everyone else.” This is not just a case of Irish begrudgery; it is blatant ageism.
A survey commissioned by Third Age, a national voluntary organisation that promotes the value of older people in society, shows the extent of ageism in Irish society.
Almost half of the 1,000 participants aged 15 and over disagreed with the statement, “Older people’s views are generally listened to by other people.”
More than two-thirds disagreed with the statement “Older people are treated no differently to anyone else,” and 42 per cent agreed with the statement “Older people’s views are generally ignored by other people.”
Almost half of survey participants over 55 agreed that “Older people are regarded as a burden on society.”
Notwithstanding the sometimes awkwardness of the survey language with its double negatives, it can be inferred that many older people feel ignored, think their views are not heard, are discriminated against, and believe they are seen as a burden. Growing older seems to mean people lose their personhood and normal human rights do not apply.
A recent study, Changing Generations: Findings from New Research on Intergenerational Relations in Ireland, carried out by the Social Policy and Ageing Research Centre at Trinity College Dublin and the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology at NUI Galway, found little evidence of conflict between the generations.
In fact, older people were “almost universally perceived as a deserving group that merited more and improved transfers and services from the State”.
Why then do the “opinion-making actors” mentioned in NPAS claim younger people begrudge older people their pensions and healthcare?
Do they want to distract any debate on equality and fairness away from the real problem? Is it because, according to this report, “the source of perceived injustice and unfairness in Irish society lies entirely outside the intergenerational sphere”?
Politicians, highly paid public-sector workers and abusers of the social welfare system are seen as the main source of injustice and unfairness.
The report concluded that “commentators should think twice before making a case for actual or impending conflict between the generations”.
I couldn’t have put it better myself.