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Deadly generation game

Routine ridiculing, degradation and blaming of old people in the cultural mainstream has allowed the government to treat us as collateral damage – but sadly this mean-spirited ageism has infected parts of the left too, writes JULIA BARD

ONE of the greatest strengths of the Labour Party is the age range of its activists. 

In my constituency the friendships we’ve forged through canvassing, campaigning and protesting in the streets have breached the boundaries imposed by a prevailing view that we should be stratified and defined by age. 

At the same time, the right-wing press continues its long tradition of ridiculing, patronising and stereotyping old people, an approach which fits nicely with marketing strategies that slice society into “generations.” 

These ideas have leached into general conversation, and, unfortunately, it’s not just the right making crass assumptions. 

A strand of people on the left have adopted the same facile stereotypes that allow the real villains to blame old people for the appalling state of the world. 

Here are some recent social media posts by people on the left, including Labour Party members:

“…our generation has been f****d over by that generation.”

“I seriously think that our world will be a better place and improve immeasurably, when boomers no longer exist in it. Only problem is the untold damage to us and planet they do while they remain.” 

Can you imagine any other group, defined purely by physical characteristics, being talked about in this way by socialists? Here’s another one:

“So we bide our time and wait for them die off so they become the minority? How long do you reckon it will take?”

This is the backdrop to old people being abandoned to a deadly virus. Forty-seven per cent of officially recorded coronavirus deaths in the UK have occurred in care homes. 

During the spring peak old people were triaged out of hospital and into care homes without being tested. 

Tens of thousands of them lost their lives, as did many of their underpaid, zero-hours-contracted carers, who are disproportionately black, ethnic minority and migrant workers.

We’ve known from early on that older people are particularly susceptible to Covid-19. 

But instead of that triggering extra protection, they have been knowingly put in harm’s way. 

This — along with the already straitened situation of care homes — should have been high on the left’s agenda.

But although the Labour Party has confidently campaigned on PPE, furlough payments and tenant protection, it has seemed paralysed about defending the rights of old people. 

Over the last six months this has left the government free to pursue its eugenicist policy, and to play down these deaths as “only” affecting “older people with underlying health conditions” — people of no value.

Now that schools and workplaces have reopened, older people, particularly if they are poor or from ethnic minority backgrounds or both, find themselves disproportionately vulnerable again. 

A lot of older people live in multigenerational households playing a crucial role in caring for grandchildren who are going to and from school, and where working family members will bring the virus home from public transport and their workplaces. Those who live alone face indefinite isolation.

Routine ridiculing, degradation and blaming of old people in the cultural mainstream and on social media has allowed the government to treat us as collateral damage as they prioritise the economy over lives. 

This is a particular hobby horse of David Willetts, the Tory who raised the cap on student fees from £3,225 to £9,000. 

Willetts disarmingly admitted that he’s done very well at the expense of the young, while he elegantly sidestepped the thorny question of class. 

He has done well at the expense of other people — a lot of them young, a lot of them old, and a lot of them in between. 

He is part of the 1 per cent who have done well at the expense of the 99 per cent, but I’m not expecting to hear upper-middle-class politicians issuing mea culpas for impoverishing the working class.

It’s not unusual for Tories to offload responsibility on everyone but themselves but it’s a pity their attempt to blame old people for grabbing everything at the expense of the young has permeated sections of the left. 

My generation, who grew up in the years following the second world war, did benefit from functioning public services and an economy that wasn’t as completely skewed and distorted as it is now. 

Those public services and pay rises were hard won, and we’ve never stopped fighting to hang on to them — for everyone. 

Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, it was impossible to ignore the devastating impact of class on people’s lives. 

We fought to change that and we made real gains that saved lives, gave all generations prospects and kindled hope. 

In 1948, when the NHS was founded, over-65s constituted less than 11 per cent of the population. Now — or at least before the pandemic — it’s over 18 per cent. That is an achievement, not a tragedy. 

But the backlash was huge. If we want to talk in terms of generations, let’s talk about the miners of my generation whose industry, communities, cultures and lives were destroyed; let’s talk about the former chemical workers in north-east England who are suffering an epidemic of depression; let’s talk about the shipbuilders, the textile workers, the steel workers and the car workers. 

These people were the majority of the baby boomers. They didn’t take anything from anyone — they had everything taken from them. 

And their children have inherited the devastation wreaked by Margaret Thatcher and the governments that followed her. 

This is not a generational question. Old politicians are raking in money from the tobacco industry. 

Young politicians are doing the dirty work of big pharma. Old politicians like Alf Dubbs and Jeremy Corbyn are battling for Britain to rescue child refugees. 

Young politicians like Zarah Sultana are fighting for NHS workers twice her age to get decent pay. 

Old people, baby boomers, the main victims of the Windrush scandal are courageously spearheading the campaign for justice, bringing activists of all ages on board.

But instead of challenging the dangerous generational nonsense spewed out by the media, we get tweets like this from someone describing herself as a leftist:

“Thatcher, as much as I despise her, tapped into the mood of the boomer generation; who’ve stayed loyal to her ideas since.”

And this one from a supposedly radical journalist, saying:

“Millennials … don’t need to be lectured … by Boomers who grew up with a full welfare state, affordable housing, job security, & trashed it all by the time they reached retirement.”

Of course there are conflicts and differences of perspective, and some of them are naturally related to our different life experience. 

In 1968 I was one of the lucky 10 per cent to go to university. Our fees were paid, we had maintenance grants, and we were not looking into an abyss of unemployment. 

I went back to university more recently as an old student. In the 2010 student fees campaign it was striking how few older people were on those demonstrations. 

So striking that, under cover of being an older woman, I was able to wander around unnoticed among the police, listening to them discussing their tactics.

It’s equally true that young people have been pretty absent from the struggle to rescue social care from being offloaded onto charities, faith communities and voracious, but unexpectedly precarious, capitalist companies. 

The point is that neoliberalism — which turns services into commodities and human beings into customers — affects all of us. 

During this pandemic, the government has earmarked two groups to be abandoned to the virus, supposedly to protect the economy: old people in care homes and young people in schools. 

The voices of both these groups have been almost entirely absent from the media — and it’s not because we’ve got nothing to say. 

Our needs are not in competition; they are linked, and allowing ourselves to be divided along spurious lines has deadly consequences. 

We can already see the devastating results of pressurising people back to work and into schools, and the latest figures show that infection rates in care homes are rising again. 

This could only happen in a society that treats human beings as commodities and where the media collude with the government by belittling and silencing old people, so they can sacrifice them in the battle to save the economy. 

And they haven’t even managed to do that!

One thing we can do in the Labour Party and across the left is to challenge and protest against the ideological devaluing of old people that allows governments of all ages, but generally of one class, to triage them out of having their needs met, abandoning them to a deadly virus. 

Our struggle is a joint one against the greedy and ruthless 1 per cent who are exploiting this crisis at everyone else’s expense.

Follow Julia Bard on Twitter @juliabard.

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