“Intergenerational conflict”: a false and divisive narrative

EngAgeNet’s Peter Dale contends that Intergenerational conflict is a false and divisive narrative that prevents us from addressing the real issues in society


At the moment it really feels as though our society faces battles on every front: millions of us are struggling with the choice between heating and eating; our health and care services are in crisis; an epidemic continues to sweep the land. And, if all that weren’t enough, there is a pervasive and corrosive narrative that suggests the older generation are a drain on society and are being supported by younger people.

It hasn’t helped that the long-awaited additional funding for social care is to be paid for by increased National Insurance on working people, that house prices have become unaffordable for a huge swathe of younger people, or that many younger people made huge sacrifices to protect the vulnerable from the first ravages of the pandemic.

Our concern, as a collective of organisations which have long campaigned for a fairer and more equal society, is that this narrative of “young vs old” is being promulgated to distract us from the real issues which affect all generations: the underfunding of public services; too few houses being built; an unfair and regressive tax regime that hits lower paid people hardest; inflation rates that impact all generations; an underinvestment in sustainable energy; low pay and insecure employment; and an inadequate State Pension that will eventually inflict hardship on today’s younger generation.

Back in 2018, following a number of conversations with older people, we published “A New Narrative on Ageing”. This set out to challenge society’s negative attitudes towards older people by presenting clear evidence to refute a number of commonly-held assumptions that contribute to such attitudes becoming embedded in people’s perceptions of ageing: in particular, that older people are a “net drain” on our society.

Our belief was, and remains, that a better understanding of the realities of ageing will lead to better policies and decision making, and hence to better outcomes for the quality of life and well-being of older people. But the situation has moved on significantly in the four years since we undertook that research. The coronavirus pandemic in particular appears to have fostered ageism and created division between younger and older generations.

At the same time, it has exposed the reality and inadequacy of the social care system, particularly residential care. Now more than ever, therefore, it is vitally important to reinforce the case for a more positive view of older people and ageing.

In the light of the pandemic we have revisited our original findings and, far from any of them being resolved, the situation has markedly deteriorated. We believe that it is critical that we urgently look again at the issues that supposedly divide us because, we believe, only by gaining a better understanding of each other can we collaborate to find mutually beneficial solutions to the challenges that society faces.  So, we are seeking to reinterpret the messages contained in our New Narrative and to reflect on key issues affecting older people.  Our pamphlet, Intergenerational unfairness: myth or reality? (available on the link below) is the first in a series of such reflections.  What follows is a summary of this key issue told from the point of view of older people.

Discussions concerning intergenerational unfairness commonly cast older people as the ‘villains’, enjoying wealth and privilege, while younger people face difficulty and hardship.

Older people have thus far been reluctant to challenge the notion of intergenerational unfairness, wanting to avoid a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of competing for the title of who is worst off. However, the ageism experienced by older people during the pandemic requires a robust challenge to the propositions that:

  • Older people enjoy privilege at the expense of younger people;
  • Life for older people was much easier when they were young than it is for today’s younger generation;
  • Older people contribute little socially and economically to society while younger people shoulder the burden for their care

The reality for most older people is different:

  • The older you are, the more likely you are to have a low income; 18% (2.1 million) pensioners are estimated to be living in poverty;
  • Many older people live in poor, inappropriate housing, much of it in the private rented sector.
  • Many older people started work at a much younger age than today’s cohort and without the opportunities for education, and facing just the same barriers of sexism, racism and homophobia as experienced today.

We need to reject the notion of a binary argument: that it can only be the case that younger people struggle and that older people are privileged. We further need to reject the argument that the former is caused by the latter.

The real question perhaps is whether there is sufficient priority given to public sector investment that might mean that essential services such as education, health, and welfare benefits are not competing against each other. Underinvestment in public services and an economy that has created zero hours contracts and shrunk employment opportunities are perhaps more responsible than older people for the real problems faced by younger people.

Intergenerational division is also fuelled by the characterisation of older people as a ‘dead weight’ in society. The reality is that older people make vital social and economic contributions to society – many continue in employment (often because they cannot afford to retire) while millions more provide vital caring and volunteering.

Taking all these contributions together, older people were estimated to be making an annual net positive contribution of £40 billion to the UK economy (i.e., net of the costs of pension, welfare and health support). By 2030 the positive net contribution of older people was forecast to rise to an estimated £77 billion.

The pandemic has also reinforced assumptions about older people being responsible for pressure on NHS resources. However, in overall terms, growth in health spending is largely driven by technological change, such as medicines and surgical techniques. Moreover, millions of people of working age have a long standing illness or disability.

So, is there really a generational divide?

…and are the challenges being faced by one generation caused by the benefits enjoyed by the other?

These questions have been addressed in a research study which involved both younger and older people conducted by the Care, Emotional Health and Well-being Research Group of the University of Brighton and the South East England Forum on Ageing (SEEFA).

The results suggest that younger people themselves may not necessarily buy into the notion of intergenerational unfairness. The value of that research has been to demonstrate that seeking the views of older and younger people is a first step in establishing whether there is common ground between the generations and whether there is an appetite for an approach that unites the generations. Moreover, today’s younger people are tomorrow’s older people. If younger people are able to think about what they want their future to look like, it might help to build a better present for today’s older people.

If common ground rather than conflict exists, then the door is open for dialogue and interaction both of which are likely to produce greater mutual understanding and tolerance – the key to eliminating discrimination and prejudice.


Posted by Tony Watts

“An extended lockdown of over 70s will hurt the whole country – not just older people”

EngAgeNet, the national organisation representing grass roots forums of older people across England, has warned that extending the “lockdown” for a lengthy period based purely on age runs the risk of harming the economy, family life and the physical and mental wellbeing of seniors themselves.

Reports in a number of weekend newspapers suggest that over 70s face up to a further 18 months of tough restrictions under plans being drawn up by UK Government advisors, and leaders of regional older people’s forums across the country are joining together to voice their concerns about the unforeseen ramifications this could have.

“If this represents a policy that the Government is actually considering, then it is highly worrying – and we want to have our voices heard before any decisions are made,” says Peter Dale, Chair, Board of Trustees, South East England Forum on Ageing.

“While older people will obviously be keen to play their part in curbing the worst consequences of the pandemic, and we also recognise that statistically Covid-19 has a greater impact on older people than younger ones, it’s critical that some other major factors are taking into consideration.

“To start with, the ‘70’ benchmark is not a precise arbiter of who will be most prone to the more extreme impacts of the condition – and in itself is ageist: weight, gender and even ethnicity are also emerging as factors, but I don’t see anyone suggesting that overweight people, men and members of BAME should be subject to the same draconian rules.

“Older people play key roles in our society and a lengthy lockdown for them will damage the social fabric of our communities. Millions of people in their 70s and beyond are central to our institutions – to local government, school governance, the voluntary sector – as well as running essential local groups, caring for family members and friends and looking after grandchildren so that parents can go to work.

“To suppress that activism would have calamitous consequences for the contribution that older people make to society. And that’s before we get to how the ‘Silver Pound’ – older people shopping, using public transport, taking breaks and using leisure facilities – which makes a crucial contribution to the economy.

Adds John Welham, Vice Chair of the Yorkshire and Humberside Forum on Ageing: “There is a worrying assumption that prevails that all older people are frail and vulnerable, which clearly isn’t the case. Not only are people living longer but a great number of them are also leading active lives.

“Many are still working full or part time, or running businesses. Let’s not forget that Alan Sugar is 73, James Dyson is 72 and Richard Branson turns 70 in July – and that’s before we get to the famous musicians and actors well past threescore and ten.  Who’s going to tell them they should be in lockdown for the next 18 months?

“And presumably the 28 MPs currently over the age of 70 would have to be working as best they can from their own homes, as would a large percentage of the House of Lords.”

Liz Mandeville, Chair of East Midlands Later Life Forum, points to the long-term effects on the wellbeing of those in lockdown for an extended period: “We already have an epidemic of loneliness impacting negatively upon people’s health and – eventually – the NHS. Denying them the same level of active engagement as younger people once the pillars for safe relaxation of the ‘lockdown’ are in place runs the risk of increased physical and mental health demands in the future.”

So how does EngAgeNet believe any lockdown should apply to older people? “Of course, our first and most important duty is to ensure that we don’t become a burden on the NHS, but treating us as individuals rather than a simplistic ‘bloc’ of the population is critical,” says Tony Watts OBE, who chairs the South West Alliance on Ageing. “That means that once we get through the current ‘eye of the storm’, making sure that adequate testing and protective equipment is in place to allow us to continue contributing to society – the cost of which will be more than covered by the positive impact we can make on the economy.

“On top of that, those whose health conditions or advanced age means that they really do need an additional level of protection must have full support to weather out the lockdown in their own homes or care settings and still emerge in good physical and mental health at the end – especially those living alone.

“That means,” he says, “supplying digital equipment and support for some to help keep them connected to the outside world, and ensuring that they are well looked after for food and provisions – which is not happening universally at the moment.”

“We want to play our part in returning the country to normality,” concludes Chris Walsh, Chair of Positive Ageing in London, “and the positive reality is that most older people play key roles in society as workers, carers and volunteers. And we refuse to be discriminated against on the basis of age. We should all be able to leave our homes regardless of age – but only when there is really adequate PPE for the general public, full mass testing and tracking – not just promises.”


Press contact: Tony Watts OBE, 07738 167788 / [email protected]

Posted by Tony Watts

House of Lords launch for Mature Conversations report

Over the past year, members of EngAgeNet up and down the country have been running consultations on four key issues affecting the lives of older people:

■■ social care – what older people want and their attitude to funding;

■■ housing – what people need to remain in their own homes;

■■ employment and retirement – what is needed to ensure age friendly employment practices;

■■ technology – establishing how it can benefit older people and influencing its development.

The results were launched today (16 October 2019) at the House of Lords, and the findings represent a powerful and highly detailed picture of what older people in England really feel and think.

This publication identifies the need for a mature conversation about those aspects of ageing that require a collective social response, recognising that older people are part of the solution as well as part of the problem. Older people are net contributors to society, they play an active role in their families and communities – they work; they are carers; they are volunteers; they are anchor points in families, providing stability and enabling family members to go out to work; they are citizens with an equal voice, and their views on how they would wish to be treated should they lose their independence or become incapacitated, need to be listened to.

This was a pilot project, but there are now hopes of scaling up the exercise and collaborating with service providers as well as policymakers to look at specific issues in various parts of the country.

It is clear that the process described in this report has produced a series of key messages reflecting older people’s concerns, experience and views about the topics under discussion. We believe that this report provides evidence of the effectiveness of this method of engaging older people and in enabling them to have a say on issues that directly affect them.

Based on the success of this pilot study, our aim is to create an infrastructure that will enable mature conversations routinely to take place across the country – reflecting current and topical issues and ensuring that the views of older people are both given prominence in the formulation of policies and taken account of in the decision making processes that have in the past habitually excluded them.

EngAgeNet is in a unique position of tapping into the knowledge, lived experiences and ideas of hundreds of thousands of older people: a resource that we want to harness to improve lives and design better services.

To receive a hard copy of the report, email: [email protected]. But you can download a digital version by clicking onto the link below.

If you are an organisation that would like to find out how EngAgeNet could help you improve your policies, services or products, we’d be delighted to talk.


Posted by Tony Watts