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Do older people have a voice in today's society?
On the opening day of the Conservative Party Conference at the ICC in Birmingham, WRVS hosted its “fringe” event entitled “Do older people have a voice in today’s society?”. With a packed room, Esther Rantzen started the debate with an unequivocal “no they don’t!” Esther strongly argued that older people are a massive resource and asked “where would the voluntary sector be without the older generation giving up their time?”.
Esther spoke passionately about the issue of loneliness amongst older people and drew on her own personal experience of downsizing to a flat in “little old lady land” recently and the experience of coming home to a dark flat with no one to talk through about your day or discuss what’s in the papers with. Esther touched on the stigma attached to admitting that you are lonely and succinctly summarized what loneliness feels like - “plenty of people to do something with but nobody to do nothing with”.
When it comes to public policy, Esther felt that older people’s concerns are not properly represented in Government, in a holistic rounded way: there may be someone in the Department of Health dealing with older people in hospital, then there could be someone in the Department for Work and Pensions with responsibility for pensions issues, but there is no one looking out for older people more generally, Esther argued. And that’s why she would like to see a Minister for Older People appointed. Names were bandied about with Esther proposing Ken Clarke – who is currently a Minister “without portfolio”, meanwhile an audience member suggested Boris Johnson.
Whilst Esther spoke evocatively about the social aspects of growing old, Ruth Porter, director of communications at the Institute of Economic Affairs focussed on the economic impacts of ageing in her response. Ruth argued that older people do indeed have a very strong voice, but the debate has become polarized, with older people pigeon-holed.
Ruth thinks that this is divisive and unhelpful and pitches older generations against the younger. She strongly believes that the issues to do with our ageing population should be tackled by all of us working together. Ruth quoted the startling fact that by 2020 more than half of voters will be over the age of 55 and therefore it follows that politicians are very much listening to what older people say. Ruth said that as a country we must face up to the fact that the sums don’t add up and that the retirement age hasn’t kept up with life expectancy. She said that we’ve been lied to by politicians, as, although many people should rightly expect a decent pension after paying into the system for 40 years, there isn’t enough money in the pot. Ruth’s comments that wealth has transferred from the younger generations to the older ones in recent years and that they are passing the bill for old age to the younger generations sparked plenty of comments from the (mostly older) audience.
There was plenty of food for thought for the Conservative politicians and activists who attended as they continued on at the rest of the conference, including (just a few):
- Should each TV/radio channel be required to have older presenters/reporters?
- Should the state pension be scrapped altogether and people be forced into compulsory savings schemes?
- Should universal benefits, such as free TV licences and the winter fuel payment be means tested?
Join the debate on Twitter using #oldervoice