Age rage! Why it’s young against old

Years of underfunding have created conflict between generations. But it’s not our fault, says Prof John Sutherland. Peter Gruner reports from the front line

Friday, 10th March 2017 — By Peter Gruner


Old gits – and at nearly 70 that includes me – have, we’ve been told, led a lovely, charmed life and shouldn’t complain.

We apparently had greater advantages in the days when you saw your GP straight away, it was cheaper to buy and rent homes, and if you went to university (not that many of us did) there were no tuition fees.

But according to our detractors we oldies squandered our advantages and pulled up the drawbridge after us.

Fortunately that’s not the view of leading Camden academic Professor John Sutherland. His new book The War On The Old says it’s time old people stopped taking the blame for society’s woes.

Of course you could say that at 78 the Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at University College London is slightly biased. You could say that. I couldn’t possibly comment.

In an interview with this paper he said: “I really sympathise with the plight of young people today. It is extremely tough for them.

“But I resent the sneers and the often nasty barbed comments from the young suggesting that the old should somehow feel guilty. It’s not our fault rents in Camden for students have doubled in a year. Or that there are now about 14 estate agents on Parkway alone and everyone is into rents and lettings. At the same time university fees have gone through the roof.”

Professor Sutherland’s plea to the young is quite simple: “Don’t take it out on old people. Blame successive governments and highly paid politicians with gold-plated pensions for not planning for the future. A future which appears to set young and old against each other rather than being in support of one another.”

Old people are accused of bed blocking (denying younger people the care they require in hospital); house hoarding (denying youngsters the roof over their heads they deserve); and, through gold-plated pensioning, wealth accumulating.

“It irks the deprived young. They want us gone so they can get the spoils,” he added.

However, Professor Sutherland, who lives in Mornington Crescent, says that unless you are superfit with tons of cash – and the latter description firmly excludes those having to rely on a state pension – life is not quite as merry for the elderly as some would suggest.

No wonder, he says, that Age UK has declared the state of elderly care here to be “unacceptable in a civilised society”, with more than a million old people getting no help at all for basic help – such as getting out of bed, going to the toilet, preparing food or taking medication.

The professor is particularly angry with Kentish Town-based Times columnist, Giles Coren. Coren blamed hordes of oldies for voting for Brexit, writing after the vote: “From their stair-lifts and their Zimmer frames, their electric recliner beds and their walk-in baths, they reached out with their wizened old writing hands to make their wobbly crosses and screwed their children and their children’s children for a thousand generations.”

Professor Sutherland was appalled. “Apart from anything else, I voted Remain.”

His book is short, informative, yet entertaining, and broaches probably one of the most important issues of our age. By 2020, we are told, one in five Britons will be pensioners, and living a longer retirement than ever before. But never before have pensioners faced such a healthcare lottery.

“Old people are being neglected or institutionally abused, even dying, in large numbers – unnecessarily and wrongly. They are victims of negligence so widespread that, common sense suggests, there must be a policy behind it. A canny affirmative wink.”

He admits that the “war” in the title of his book might be bit emotive but there is “real bad feeling” among the generations. “You can see the sneers on the faces of the young sometimes,” he said. “Why? What have I done?”

Professor Sutherland is in favour of old people volunteering to help society and, where they can afford it, contributing more cash to the NHS. But will it ever be enough? “The problem is the bill for care for the elderly is already huge and with more people not dying it’s just getting bigger.”

So if there is a battle with the young, oldies must keep fit.

“Eat right,” he says. “Cut down on red meat, bump up your intake of vegetables and fruit, avoid salt, and don’t, above all, smoke.”

He suggests we might like to join a gym that emphasises body strength, not athletic fitness. “Exercise in gyms, or on dance floors, which have a preponderance of younger members. Never clique with people your own age.”

Get a dog to walk. It’s not really “exercise”, but it is therapeutically de-stressing. And dogs love you unconditionally.

Stay active. For the older person, being active in the kitchen or garden is probably more the issue than muscle flexing and speed hiking.

However, there is another route for oldies to take. Instead of surrendering to decrepitude, you can fight back. Fight for your right not to die.

Professor Sutherland says we must take our cue from the poet Dylan Thomas’s beautiful, but terrifying, instruction to his aged dying father:

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

The War On The Old. By John Sutherland, Biteback £10

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