In recent years the threat from older people has repeatedly been held over us. Their changed demographics have been framed as a time bomb. The massively expanding number and proportion of old and very old people are presented as upsetting the economic balance of the nation, creating a massive burden for following generations.
They are seen to impose a disproportionate strain on the NHS and the crumbling social care system is still searching for an answer to their rising needs.
But the old cliché, ‘as you are at seven, so you are at seventy’ still seems to hold true. If there’s any group over-65s should remind us of, it’s the young. They are as heterogeneous and diverse, with similar divisions in income, class and opportunity. At the same time, they increasingly face many of the problems of exclusion, poverty, disadvantage and discrimination associated with the young. They are already much more likely to be institutionalised than any other group and make up a growing proportion of the prison population.
Yet while older people are a rapidly growing constituency which might be expected to have increasing political muscle, their rights and needs remain low profile and low priority.
The multi-million pound charities set up to campaign for them currently seem more interested in developing deals with the private sector and offering paid for goods and services than providing a challenging campaigning voice.
As yet storm troops for age equality like Age UK’s celebrity ambassadors June Whitfield, Sir Roger Moore and Lionel Blair seem to be making little impact. Older people’s own organisations like the National Pensioners Convention are mostly strapped for cash and their demands tend to be marginalised by the media and politicians.
If anything, things look set to get even worse for older people with rising inflation, cuts in the public services and social care they particularly rely on and diminishing state and personal pensions. Most of the 2011 rioters were under 25. But we might ask whether rioting could make more sense for older people than relying on Age UK and its equivalents. In the Manchester riots, the alternative Salford Star reported ‘youngsters handed old people packs of cigs, and tins of Carlsberg freshly liberated from LIDL’ – which currently could be enough to get them before the courts.
What issues might it raise if older people did riot? What consequences would it have and could it ever happen? Those who think not would do well to look to a parallel movement, that of disabled people. There were once the same assumptions of passivity about them. But since then there has been the emergence of Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN), Mad Pride and years of effective direct action, demonstrations, confrontation and campaigns, with disabled people reporting official attitudes rapidly changing from being humoured and patronised to being treated with hostility and aggression.
Most recently the IPCC upheld disabled student Jody McIntyre’s complaint that the police had used excessive force in dragging him along the road after he had been pulled from his wheelchair protesting against student tuition fees last December.
However petty and nasty they look close up, riots are invariably a consequence of broader crisis and division. Few would want to see them as a regular feature of the UK social and political landscape. However there looks set to be an increasingly thin line between protest and disorder in Britain as inequalities grow and democratic structures are weakened. The need to readjust stereotypes of ‘the old’ as passive and uncomplaining may well arise in such circumstances.
• Peter Beresford is professor of social policy at Brunel University
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