About 100 years ago, as the world struggled with the aftermath of a Global pandemic, as warfare on a horrific scale in Europe brought fear and as people faced poverty and hardship because of economic depression, there were those who were keen to turn the focus on specific classes of people and encourage the politics of resentment and envy. At its worst, this focused on one specific people group as the Nazis and Fascists deployed antisemitism.
In the last ten years, alongside other forms of racism, we’ve sadly seen antisemitism raise it’s ugly head again right at the centre of politics but there’s another group that have also been targeted with envy and resentment. If 100 years ago, the challenge was race based fascism, there is a danger today of age-based fascism, of demographic and generational resentment.
The other day I saw this tweet from the Senior Associate Editor of the New Statesman.
Now, in her defence, we might argue that it is part of a thread setting out some general challenges and that her aim is to argue not that younger generations can/should demand things off of the elderly but rather that there are natural consequences to what older people do and do not do.
However, the language is deeply troubling because of the tone it encourages. I wrote about this theme only the other week and so I’m saddened to see another example of the problem so very quickly. As I wrote before, the first problem is a logical one. Rachel Cunliffe talks about what the older generation have to do for the younger generation but how exactly are they meant to do those things if they are already dependent upon their pensions. Are they meant to time travel back.
Further, notice the presumption from what is itself a significantly more prosperous generation that the one ahead of theirs has done nothing for them. If we can talk about my grandparent’s generation building my parent’s generation’s homes then surely we must recognise that my generation benefited from the technology and infrastructure that dad’s generation developed for us to enable us to enjoy our prosperity and global connections today. The generation after mine will benefit from the further developments to that in my time.
But my biggest issue is with the language about if older people are to be supported as they
“live with dignity for decades post retirement.”
The language here is shocking for two reasons. First of all because it sets up the idea of dignity as something that can be negotiated and withheld, that there are obligations to meet before dignity can be granted. There is no sense in that statement that dignity is something that people automatically have because they are made in the image of God.
Secondly, there’s something in there about longevity, some resentment about those living for decades. The idea that some negotiation about that, the tone which suggests that those who enjoy many years are dependent burdens should sicken us in the pit of our stomachs. When I wrote my earlier article about older people and pensions, one friend suggested that we were not too far off the stage where people would be encouraged to consider euthanasia, made to feel that this was right thing to do, as though they were a burden and their existence was worthless.
I hope that Ms Cunliffe will reflect on the language she has used and take down her tweets. However, even if she does, the problem is that her language reflects views that are increasingly prevalent in our society.
It is important that Christians point to and live by a different set of values. Scripture presents all human life, from conception and into old age as having dignity because we are made in the image of God. Scripture points to old age and grey hairs as a blessing both to those who attain it and those who benefit from the wisdom of their elders. Scripture commands us to honour, respect and care for the elderly. Let’s keep working at ensuring that our churches are places where older people find love, welcome and dignity.