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A provocation

The war on the old came out at the end of 2016, and I missed it at the time.  The author is John Sutherland, formerly Lord Northcliffe Professor of English Literature at University College London.  As well as being a regular contributor to the Guardian and the LRB, he written extensively on Victorian novels and is editor of the forthcoming Oxford Companion to Popular Fiction. So although he is no stranger to social and cultural commentary, he is emphatically not a social scientist or a policy wonk; an academic who makes no claim to specialist knowledge outside his own field of English Literature.

Sutherland’s book is described as a ‘provocation’. This is a polemical piece, therefore, and one written by an intelligent, thoughtful and well-read observer. It’s also more of an extended essay than a book.  Think of it as a commentary that weaves together strands of opinion and voices in the media and highlighted facts and data on large-scale trends to point to a social phenomenon that the author finds extremely disconcerting. He is convinced that the pattern he sees is not an illusion, but something that is really there. As he admits, he feels personally engaged in the matter - being no longer young. It would be crass, however, to assume that this must count against his claim to discern a pattern in what he sees and hears.  Sutherland himself sees his age (78) as a qualification for taking up the topic. It has sensitized him to forms of hostility and neglect that are directed against people ‘like him’, and given salience to problems that seem bound up with the grimmer realities of growing old. There is, of course, more than a hint of exaggeration in his title. Nevertheless, he thinks that he can justify his use of the term ‘war’ by an account of the way in which ‘gerontophobia’ makes its mark in our society.

Whether it’s fair to say that the opening shot was fired by Giles Coren (46) in an article which appeared in The Times on 25th June 2016 is not clear. Probably not. For Sutherland, though, it marked the moment when the scales dropped from his eyes (‘this is war’), and certainly Coren didn’t mince his words, no pussyfooting round the issue. Here’s what he had to say. “The referendum shows that old folk can’t be trusted with big decisions. They’re always wrong. About everything....etc”.  Journalists, as we know, write lots of stuff to pay the bills, though occasionally intellectual honesty shines through. Controversy mixed with a leavening of entertainment sells newspapers, and confected outrage greases the wheels.  In this case, however, maybe we should give Coren the benefit of the doubt. He is really annoyed and knows who is to blame. Sutherland skewers him rather well - “just one enragé kicking up his legs in a chorus line of soi-disant ‘young ‘uns’” - and goes on to give us a few more voices from the chorus. The note Sutherland strikes then is not that of a detached and theoretically informed analysis of young Coren’s ageist misdemeanour. He fires back.

And here’s Hugo Rifkind (39), a few weeks later, in the same newspaper. “You just try telling someone born between the Second World War and the mid-1960s that they might have had an easier life than somebody a bit younger. Meltdown. They make Generation Snowflake positively stoical. “We worked hard!”, they’ll shout, from their massive houses which cost them a whole two years’ salary in 1976”.

For myself, it seems obvious that this is a bit of a wind-up. Deliberately OTT. The outrage is more confected than in the Coren piece. Even so, I can understand why Sutherland should think he can begin to see a pattern emerging here; and he doesn’t want to let it slide. 

The exhibits can be easily piled up. Less than a month after Coren’s reflections on the referendum result a report from the IFS prompted the Intergenerational Foundation (‘a rabidly youthist lobby group’) have a pop at the ‘grey-haired plutocracy’ (both phrases are Sutherland’s not mine). “This new report from the IFS provides the latest evidence that a generation of hard-working young people is being left behind by an economy which is failing to provide them with the kind of secure, fairly rewarded work which previous generations have taken for granted”.  

Although Sutherland’s aim is not to argue that all this intergenerational justice stuff is bunk, and he certainly doesn’t want to deny that there is something to be said for the arguments put forward by David Willetts in The Pinch, he insists that the cards are most definitely not stacked in favour of people like him, people that is in their late 70’s or older.  And he counters indignation with indignation.  The counter-attack comes down to this: whatever benefits have accrued to the Baby Boom Generation (such as the windfall gains from house ownership), our society has a problem with old age, and most of the book is taken up with documenting its component parts, negative attitudes and institutional failings. There is a lot that we in the UK do not do well - especially in the matter of health and long-term care - and it is very easy to lose sight of this when we strike the sort of posture taken up by Coren et al.  What worries Sutherland is the growing power of the idea that this generation of older people is less deserving of public support and sympathy than their parents were. We do not have to suppose that the idea is ‘winning out’ in order to see it as a problem; it’s enough if it contributes to the formation of two adversarial camps that have the potential to divide society down the middle. And as for the potential, there seems to be little doubt in Sutherland’s mind. The idea is one which feeds and amplifies an undercurrent of hostility which seems to be deeply embedded in the difference between young and old - an “ever-rumbling subterranean friction between the generations”.  “In general, the young are not predisposed to like the old and never have been. The old are living reminders of what awaits”.  How’s that for a provocation? 

For myself, I am provoked to ask how much we should read into the choice of the word ‘war’.  How much of the pattern that Sutherland discerns is a post-Brexit media storm that will die down to be replaced by some other fissure in our society?  Or is it that young vs old is one among many adversarial face-offs that mark an increasingly fractured political culture?   And anyway what hangs on the determination that the metaphor of war is really apposite in this case? 

The war on the old is published by Biteback Publishing.

About the Author:

Kenneth Howse is a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. He is also a key member of The Collen Programme on Fertility, Education and the Environment.

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