Beyond the generational battlefield: changing portrayals of older people through activism
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Homeowners. Renters. Xenophobic. Cosmopolitan.Pension. Precarity. Conservative. Progressive. Selfish.Idealistic. Golf. Angry Birds. BMW. E-scooter. Newspapers. Social media. Job for life. Zero-hours contract. Hip replacements. Hipster beards. Narcissist. Snowflake.
Such is the toxicity of the Baby Boomer versus Millennial war that it dominates most conversations about the relations between older and younger generations in North America and western Europe. Baby Boomers are generally defined as people born between 1947 and 1961 while Millennials are those born in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. But Baby Boomers and Millennials are only subsets of very diverse social groups of younger and older people, which are mistakenly portrayed as representative. Certainly, some people fall into the stereotypes above, but it is unhelpful to associate all older people with assumptions that overlook their political engagement and activism when there are serious socio-economic and political issues at stake that would benefit from an intergenerational approach.
Increased longevity and ageing populations in many countries mean there is increasing attention paid to issues affecting older people, from pensions, to medical care, to isolation, and this trend has been exacerbated by the emergence of COVID-19. Popular discourse often presents young people with co-existing, although seemingly contradictory, negative stereotypes about older people. On the one hand, it suits some policymakers and public commentators to perpetuate the idea of a passive older person in need of protection, known as ‘compassionate ageism’. For examples of these sentiments, look no further than Twitter posts during the Covid-19 lockdowns where hashtags such as #DontKillGrandma bolstered the stereotype of a helpless older person in need of protection.
On the other hand, ‘scapegoat ageism’ simultaneously blames older people, regardless of their actual politics, for the unequal socio-economic status quo that disadvantages the young. For example, when the theme of age appears in political discourse, it is often as a problem that needs solving, with older people depicted as obstacles rather than active citizens. This damaging combination of discourses disregards older people’s opinions on policy change, as well as allowing them to be blamed for decisions which financially or socially hurt the young. These narratives create an ‘us vs. them’ dichotomy that frames age and youth as oppositional categories with irreconcilable values.
Strangely missing from discourses about older people is the concept of intersectionality, which acknowledges that an individual comprises multiple interacting identities influencing discrimination and privilege. Thus, age is only one element of any elderly person’s identity, alongside factors including class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and religion. In fact, people often prefer to be identified by other characteristics and analysis of voting patterns shows that age is a fairly insignificant predictive factor for how people will vote. Despite this, ‘generational revenge’, coined by the sociologist Frank Furedi, pits old and young people against each other in a tired blame-game narrative.
Far from being selfish or unaware, many people who are elderly today campaigned their way through social and political crises in the mid to late twentieth century which were just as pressing as any in 2022, from apartheid to nuclear disarmament. Furthermore, there are organisations and groups driven specifically by older people. Some campaign about particular issues, such as the Grandmothers of the Plaza De Mayo who seek out children kidnapped during the Argentine military dictatorship of 1976-1983, while others adopt stances on a wide range of socio-political debates such as the US intergenerational campaign group the Gray Panthers.
When it comes to activism in the broad sense that the term is used today, there is a spectrum from long-established and focused campaigners to those only intending to be involved for a short time, often motivated by a particular personal goal. In what I have chosen to call ‘unintentional activism’, relatively local or personal acts by the elderly in response to specific problems have piqued the interest of the media. ‘Unintentional activism’, in particular, offers an opportunity to make it better known that the lives of people who happen to be older are multi-faceted and full of potential. This attention counters prevalent narratives suggesting that social change belongs mostly in the realm of youth, a view which fails to acknowledge the guidance, experience, and foundational work of older campaigners. Recognising examples of socially conscious and politically active older people has the potential to add greater nuance to commonly held views about the elderly and comes as an additional positive side effect of their political or social work.
There have been many recent notable examples of older people becoming unintentional activists. Among the most famous was Sir Thomas Moore (1920-2021), who raised millions of pounds for NHS Charities Together in 2020. His sponsored walk in his garden inspired others to undertake similar fundraising efforts; a small personal commitment that became the centre of an international phenomenon. This ripple effect produced other elderly activists such as Joseph Ashitey Hammond (b. 1925), who raised money for ex-service personnel and frontline workers in Ghana by doing his own sponsored walk. Without attracting the same overwhelming attention, Paulette Wilson (1956-2020) was forced by the 2018 Windrush scandal to fight against deportation to Jamaica. She went on to help others in her position by petitioning the Home Office to compensate those who had suffered under the hostile environment immigration policy. Even the unplanned celebrity and matter-of-factness of Margaret Keenan (b. 1929), who was the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, has the potential to change the way younger people perceive the elderly, by showing them as active, engaged, and opinionated.
Despite longevity increasing, ageism in contexts such as the workplace, the health sector and in media depictions, is going from strength to strength and remains largely unchallenged in public discourse, despite the value and potential of older people. The claims that most older people are only ever self-serving and that their unsound political decisions are destined to place a burden on the young are pernicious myths that ignore the diversity and experiences of older generations. Regarding the majority of older people as selfish or lacking in political awareness ignores the contributions made by many to earlier campaigns for gender equality, nuclear disarmament and to end apartheid, to name but a few. It is to be hoped that a combination of ‘unintentional activism’ and the determined work of long-established groups will ultimately break down the limiting stereotypes that fuel compassionate and scapegoat ageism by emphasising that the elderly are and have been many things, but they were not born old.