Last Friday, the Archbishop of Canterbury called our attention to the place and contribution of older people in society by sponsoring a House of Lords debate that lasted five hours. It was a wise invitation in that this is central to the changes we need to make in our understanding of, and action in, the world.
The debate drew my attention to the fact that the Lords is unique in our politics in providing a place where older people, women and men with distinction and experience can have their voices heard – where they have a place and can make a contribution. It is vital that this respect for skills, experience and accomplishment is retained in our conception of the Lords. (If we do ever have an elected second chamber, perhaps an age threshold should be set based upon vocation rather than location? That could be good way of keeping the Lords’ distinctiveness within a framework of democratic reform.)
The hard reality we need to look at, entering into a world with less money, is that in Britain we have not treated older people very well for a long time; within a marketing environment that promotes youngness and newness as overriding virtues. This took a step change under Margaret Thatcher when an entire culture of work and skill, carried in the shipyards and mines, was abandoned to its fate. And priorities didn’t change very much under successive Labour governments, which concentrated more on the skills of the young developed by modern methods.
If we view our skills shortage as a ‘resource’ problem then we take action to allocate and train in order to redirect the missing factors. We encourage immigration and engage in retraining programmes for example, to fill the gap. Far from being a burden or a problem, older people are a constitutive part of our inheritance and an undiscovered treasure through which the future can be shaped in a way that brings us together.
The Common good is a politics that seeks to conciliate estranged, divided and, indeed, hostile interests. There is a significant body of literature that sees older people as having at best, too large a share of existing assets and at worst, as a drain on resources. We are living longer, with a larger older population in Britain and an inadequate system of care. All the warning lights are flashing, but if approached in the right way this could be the making of us.
We have a problem with skills, vocation and the ethics of work, which older people are a crucial part of transforming. If we are to redeem the abandonment of the old then the renewal of vocational institutions, and the role of older people in the education and training of the young is vital. The idea of lifelong learning has become a cliché but if accompanied by the idea of lifelong teaching it comes back to life, because life itself is a great teacher. With experience of work, and a culture of skill, tenacity, solidarity and courage, older people have the values we need.
By not being bamboozled by university degree entry and academic aspiration when it is beside the point we can integrate the generations in the renewal of value. We need the retired ward sisters in the training colleges teaching young nurses the centrality of care and the importance of honesty. We need the discarded shipbuilders back in the colleges training for new maritime technology. Older people are our greatest teachers but we exclude them from passing it on, from shaping the future. If we change that we will have made a great contribution to national renewal.
There is a lot else to do to broker an inter-generational society. Above all however, we must have a commitment to status and honour for older people to show us how to survive and flourish in the modern world.
Lord Maurice Glasman is an academic, social thinker and backbench Labour Peer in the House of Lords. This piece first appeared at the Labour Lords blog.