Change that leads to better lives

Blog: Do we need a new narrative on ageing and a whole life strategy?

We're proud to mark Global Intergenerational Week with a blog from long-standing NDTi ambassador and member of the NHS Older People's Sounding Board, Dame Philippa Russell.

Global Intergenerational Week

The pandemic caused economic and social disruption, which has profoundly impacted the lives of all our communities. The disruption also created an often unhelpful and sometimes angry debate as to intergenerational fairness and whether older people are benefiting at the cost of younger people’s well-being. This blog considers how and why we need a different debate around intergenerational fairness and ageing well.

The pandemic has generated a growing (sometimes acrimonious) debate about potential conflicts of interest between younger and older generations. Older people are often presented as over-privileged, ‘bed blockers’ in the NHS and beneficiaries of more generous housing and pension systems. Younger people feel they have experienced multiple challenges with the cost of education, uncertain employment options and an unaffordable housing market. But as members of the Youth Council and the Older People's Sounding Board found when they met on National Youth Day, there is genuine enthusiasm for shared experiences and mutual learning about each other’s real lives.

So, can we bridge any generational divides and demonstrate the importance and the possibility of both supporting intergenerational understanding and creating a new narrative on ageing?

These questions have been explored in a research study carried out by the University of Brighton and the Southeast Forum on Ageing (SEEFA)[i]. The study examined how younger and older people perceived the current challenges in their own lives and how much insight they had into the real lives of each other. The research conclusions clearly demonstrated a mutual understanding of the age stereotypes that are prevalent in society and recognition that both older and younger people experienced discrimination and disadvantage in many areas of life. Rather than highlighting ‘difference’, the research participants shared their concerns about current economic, social, and political issues.

Those economic, social, and political issues matter. The challenges faced by young people, dealing with education disrupted by Covid and funding issues, a difficult job market and a housing crisis are matched by false assumptions about affluent and over-privileged older people. The UK state pension is one of the worst in Europe, and wider pension poverty is increasing annually. Almost one in five homes headed by someone over 60 is in a condition that endangers the health of those living there. Almost 9,000 older people died in England and Wales in 2022 because their homes were too cold. Even if older people are comfortably housed, they are more likely to be caring for older relatives or grandchildren.

The 2021 Census data shows that older women provided the most hours of unpaid care, even if they themselves had health or disability issues. Promised reform of escalating care costs for relatives with dementia or other major health problems has been deferred until 2025, with many older relatives forced to sell their homes to pay for residential care. Sadly, understanding the reality of the cost of ageing in the UK matters for younger people as much as it impacts on the older generation. As one participant in our meeting with the Youth Council commented, ‘When we look through the lens of an older person’s real life, we see our own futures.’ And as an older participant in the University of Brighton/SEEFA research observed, ‘we must create dialogues between older and younger people, we are not separate tribes and together we can write a better script for ageing well, without fear and ensuring that we can all make a contribution to our communities, whatever our age.’

Intergenerational understanding and fairness matter. As we move towards the real possibility of ‘100-year lives’, we need to rethink how we prepare better for ageing well. Today’s young people will become tomorrow’s older citizens and the debate about intergenerational fairness is their ‘future planning’! As a child, I lived through the devastation of the Second World War. Like many children of that time, we just hoped that we could survive into adult life! Recovery of lost opportunities and infrastructure seemed almost impossible to me as a small child, standing in front of our bombed house with nothing but the clothes I stood up in and my teddy bear. But I like to remember that recovery happened because there was a genuine shared commitment to rebuilding and creating a ‘whole life’ strategy for battered Britain. The ‘Young Elizabethans’ (like myself) were seen as key to recovery, and we were really ambitious for change.

At 85, I know that change does not come easily. Creating an inclusive ‘all age’ society means tackling disadvantages and discrimination along the way. But listening to members of the Youth Council and my fellow members of the Older People's Sounding Board, I know that we can and must coproduce a more equal society, with respect across the generations and richer and more fulfilling lives in consequence. Social media flourishes by exploiting difference. But as our Brighton research showed, there is mutual respect and concern between the generations. And as Libby Purves wrote in the Times (24 April 2023) about intergenerational understanding, ‘We baby boomers feel your pain – remember that we were young once and we have not forgotten!’

[1] Understanding fairness between different generations in times of Covid 19 (May 2022), University of Brighton Research Report , Ward L, Fleischer S, Towers L, University of Brighton and SEEFA (South East Forum on Ageing)

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