With an ageing population and increasing numbers of us living in to late old age, attitudes to later life have never been more relevant. At the same time, our straitened economic position and pressures on public services to meet financial challenges whilst providing for these growing numbers of over 6os, means the debate often hinges on economic and political issues.
The ‘burden’ of our ageing population is frequently stressed, accompanied by an emphasis on inequalities between generations that incite division.
Yet, one of the strongest messages to come out of a session I chaired last week at Age UK’s For Later Life conference was that the media furore on the ‘burden of ageing’ is not reflected in public attitudes.
Ben Page of Ipsos Mori revealed polling showing that 68% of people aren’t satisfied with the Government’s treatment of older people and that care for the elderly is consistently amongst the top three scoring issues of concern to people of all ages.
I believe this polling strikes at the heart of the debate about attitudes to later life, illustrating the gap between political and media rhetoric and the views of the individual. But why is there such a gap? How do we form our attitudes to later life? And are they showing signs of changing, heralding strains on intergenerational relations?
One reason for the rhetoric gap is that politicians tend to focus on macro-social trends, looking at ageing in the context of socio-economic and political challenges. They thus see intergenerational relations strained by the heavy burden of caring for a growing older population that is placed on the young.
Micro to macro?
However, rather than macro-to-micro direction of influence, some suggest the reality is that the micro – personal experiences of intergenerational relations at the family level – is more likely to influence the macro and that two-way intergenerational transfers of financial, emotional and functional support continue to ensure people of all ages care about older people.
While it’s suggested this bond is torn apart in tough economic climates, in fact, a strain on resources is just as likely to extend intergenerational ties, as families step in to fill the gap left by shrinking state support.
This argument supports a point that Ruth Rose from the UK Advisory Forum on Ageing made in her presentation last week: that it is individuals who shape attitudes towards later life.
As an 80-year-old who is active physically, socially and economically, she is certainly doing her bit to challenge stereotypes and the narrative of dependency that the politicians peddle. And many older people like her are doing the same.
Tied in with this is the role that cohort plays in attitudes to later life. Older people are not a homogenous group; indeed, the 60+ age group includes up to three generations of people, all with different viewpoints and different life experiences.
Ruth argued that whilst her cohort were brought up with the idea of older people as frail, needy and fragile, the generation below her, the ‘baby boomers’, have a different understanding of old age, characterised by their affinity to younger generations and their desire to ensure their own longer lives mean an extension of middle rather than old age.
One question this begs is whether as a result of their own attitudes to and behaviours in later life, baby boomers are changing the face of ageing itself as well as younger cohorts’ attitudes towards it?
Whilst Age UK knows all too well that a happy and healthy later life is sadly not the experience of all older people, we also see that there are increasing numbers living full and active lives well into old age and, in doing so, changing how we as a society think about ageing.
If we are to improve later life for society and for ourselves we need to be attuned to these factors and consciously shift our collective and personal attitudes towards ageing so that later life is better for today’s and tomorrow’s older people.