Age-blaming and the EU Referendum

In today’s guest blog, author Caroline Lodge looks behind the post-Brexit headline ‘age-blaming’ to reveal a different and more nuanced story behind voter choices…

Caroline Lodge

Caroline Lodge

Age-blaming is the practice of blaming older people for social, economic and political problems.

In popular discourse the problem of the old is that they take up too many resources, take more than their fair share of benefits, block beds in hospital, wont move out of their large houses and are responsible for taking Britain out of the EU. This post explores what lies behind the age-blaming that followed the EU referendum result.

Something has changed

In the past older people were respected and revered, and they still are in other cultures. Their experiences were acknowledged as a communal advantage. Their struggles were perceived to have contributed to a better society, through their efforts in the war, campaigning activities for a more just society, and through their contribution to subsequent generations, such as handing on accumulated wealth.

This is not to argue that such respect was deserved but to notice that there has been a shift. Now there is a ‘New Ageism’, which regards older people as the cause of many social problems, as benefiting unfairly and disproportionately from what is left of the welfare state and the NHS, and resented for a suggested looming time-bomb of unaffordable dependency.

The EU Referendum

EU Voting by age: The figures come from Lord Ashcroft polls. 12,369 people were surveyed on Referendum Day.

EU Voting by age: The figures come from Lord Ashcroft polls. 12,369 people were surveyed on Referendum Day.

The most recent manifestation of age-blaming has been evident in some comment since the EU vote in June. Older people are blamed for the vote to leave. The argument goes something like this.

The older the voter, the more likely they were to vote Leave. This appears to be true, but can also be correlated to education. That is the higher the level of education reached the more likely the voter was to back Remain. Very few people over 65 had access to further and higher education. It is also true that a larger proportion of younger voters backed Remain.

Percentage voting in EU Referendum by age

Percentage voting in EU Referendum by age

Blaming tends to result in tit-for-tat arguments. Quickly the case was made that the young should have voted in greater numbers if they wanted to remain in the EU. They were to blame for not exercising their right to vote.

Figures of 36% of 18-24 year olds participating in the vote, extrapolated from the general election in 2015, were launched into the argument. It seems that the figure is more likely to be 64% participation, according to the LSE research, Inside the Mind of the Voter (INMIVO).

Another strand of the post-referendum generational blaming suggested that the votes of the young should, in some way, be considered more significant than votes by older people. The argument here is that they will have longer to live with the consequences.

This argument was evident in the letter by Professor AC Grayling to all MPs, on the 1st July, which suggested several reasons why the referendum result should be over-ruled by Parliament.

“We know that the Remain and Leave votes divided along the fault lines of age, educational level, and geography. There is every reason to urge that the wishes and interests of the young – the younger, more aspirational creators of the country’s future – should be given most weight.”

Another strand of age-blaming in the referendum is the suggestion that older voters are less competent. A comment piece in the Guardian referred to the vote being won, ‘by a section of the population that is effectively disqualified by its declining competence’ (Stewart Dakers 12th July). The argument draws on two pervasive beliefs about older people: being older is a state of decline and that older people are ‘other’ and not like us.

“Who is to say that experience and longevity should be worth less than inexperience and youth?”

It is a very dangerous to argue for different weighting at the ballot box. Who is to say that experience and longevity should be worth less than inexperience and youth; or that property owners should have electoral advantage over those who generate capital through their manual labour (as they did up until 20th century) or that one gender should be valued more than another (as happened until 1928)? Incidentally the original admission of women to the vote in 1918 excluded younger women, presumably because they were considered less likely to be competent to take this new voting right seriously.

In other countries ethnic groups have been differentially advantaged. We must recognise that the values of the powerful tend to get replicated unless each person’s vote is weighted equally. Discrimination on the grounds of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, class and so on is regarded as unacceptable today. Apparently it is more acceptable to express ageist opinions.

It is also offensive to suggest that older people who voted to leave somehow got it wrong. Voting has always been promoted on the basis of self-interest. If older people believe that it is in their interest to leave the EU, then we would expect them to vote Leave. Let us rewrite that sentence: if people believe that it is in their interest to leave the EU, then we would expect them to vote Leave.

Age is not the defining category

But there is another question to ask, which has been missed so far. It is true that the older citizens were more likely to vote Leave, but why is that the case? Do those aged 65+ feel they have not benefited from the European experiment? Are they voting, as suggested by a geographical analysis, because they object to the continuing difficulties caused by austerity? I have already suggested that education is one factor here. But contrary to the myth of the wealthy pensioners, older people are still generally less well off than younger people.

How does age-blaming happen?

The EU Referendum was characterised by simplification, not least in the issues into an either/or choice. People stood in front of buildings funded by EU money and claimed the EU had done nothing for them; Leave campaigners promised more money to the NHS; EU movement of workers was confused with refugee movement and the implied solution to economic problems was to limit migration. After the vote it was simpler to continue blame other people for the outcome.

Blaming is not a helpful activity. It implies responsibility by others, and that they are the ones to provide solutions. It also results in categorisation that does not help with understanding, but promotes stereotyping and ‘othering’.

A strong version of categorising is to label everyone born between 1945 and 1960 as Boomers and then call them greedy, to blame them for shortages of housing, jobs, NHS services, the cost of higher education and so forth. Both the categorisation of Boomers and the allegation of greed can be questioned, but are nevertheless frequently heard in public discourse.

It makes no sense to lump everyone into this Boomer category, for many of the 65+ age group are still very poor, do not own their own houses, and would do all in their power to avoid being dependent upon others. And many of the social issues are political ones: housing policy has for decades failed to meet the need for affordable housing; NHS funding is in crisis and not yet coordinated with social care for the older people who need it; free university education was available to the ‘Boomer’ generation, but in the early 1960s only 5% of that group were able to take advantage of this.

Many so-called Boomers were fully involved in the struggles for more equality, for social and economic improvements and reforms. The blanket allegations of having all the advantages, of greed and of betraying the younger generation are contradicted in our forthcoming book: The New Age of Ageing.

Much of the discourse of age-blaming implies a category of other people, and is part of a process called ‘othering’. As my colleague and co-author Marianne Coleman puts it,

“above all we need to recognise that older people are not separate or different from the rest of the population. It is not them and us, it is all us. … Constructive and clear sighted attitudes to older people, not blame, will help not only those who are old now, but those who will be old in 10, 20 or 50 years’ time.”

The toxic combination of simplification, categorising, stereotyping, blaming and ‘othering’ lead to age-blaming, of which the EU Referendum is only an example. The New Age of Ageing explores the effects of age-blaming, identifies ageism as an obstacle to better planning for our ageing future and argues for a change in attitude towards older people and celebrates older people’s continuing contributions to society.

#brexit #EUref #ageism

9781447326830The new age of ageing: How society needs to change by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman publishes on 7 September and can be pre-ordered here from the Policy Press website for special 20% discounted price £11.99.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.


2 Responses to “Age-blaming and the EU Referendum”

  1. 1 Linda Ellsworth, MD, PhD September 5, 2016 at 12:18 am

    Thank you for your blog.
    Ageism is most evident in employment. I just read today (Sunday NYT) that just under 20% of those over 65 years old are working – at a time when that age group is healthier than ever. But under- or unemployment grows worse with every decade, after the initial first-job hurdle. The move for equal protection by age is only just starting.

  1. 1 After Publication | book word Trackback on December 22, 2016 at 9:12 am

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