The elderly as guardians of our liberty

They no longer hope for preferment. They are not required to bite their tongue or grovel.

Britain, we are endlessly reminded, has an ageing population. More of us are reaching old age and living longer when we get there. This "greying of the nation" has provoked much gloomy, not to say doomy, talk. Older people are seen as a burden, placing huge demands on crushed carers and on public services to which they no longer contribute taxes.

The gerontophobes fail to see that most older people spend the greater part of their enormously extended old age in excellent health -- partly because they are getting better medical care. We are not, however, facing limitless demand for their care: the average spending on health and social services for the very old has fallen because they are in better health. What is more, old age is at least as much in the eye of the beholder as it is a matter of years and it is the law, custom, or prejudice, not infirmity, that limits the productivity of many older people.

It is time now to move the discussion on; for elders may have a rather more important job to do than simply avoiding being a drain on the public purse. John Grimley Evans, Emeritus Professor of Geratology at University of Oxford, has argued that, far from being "a social incubus, the new caste of older people freed from the tangling nets of employment and patronage could be the grey guardians of all our freedoms". As the nets of employment and patronage become more densely woven, we need these grey guardians more than ever.

The assaults on our freedoms over the past decade in particular have come from many directions. They go beyond the legislation that, in the name of fighting terror, has turned public buildings into fortresses and placed us all under surveillance from DNA registers, CCTV cameras and databases. More insidious has been the ensnaring of those who might once have defended freedoms in a liana of bureaucracy, ever-closer regulation and patronage that depends on being on-message. The terror of being found politically incorrect, off-message, or simply unfashionable, now makes self-censorship so natural that it is hardly noticed.

Traditionally, the challenge to the power of the authorities and "the tyranny of the majority" in democracies has come from professionals, from academics and intellectuals, from the media, and from the young. These countervailing forces have all been seriously weakened.

The great sociologist Emile Durkheim saw the authority of the professions as central to limiting the untrammelled power of the State. It is doubtful whether, disempowered by successive governments, they can any longer do this. Doctors, for example, are increasingly shift workers directed by puppet managers who are in turn manipulated from Whitehall. Their advancement is increasingly closely linked to keeping their mouths shut, working with rather than questioning increasingly frantic " reforms" and meeting targets however damaging the consequences for patient care.

Teachers are equally broken-spirited and we look in vain to academics for a coherent critique of the threats to our freedom. After a very dark period in which humanist intellectuals took pride in denying that there was such a thing as truth, in spreading indiscriminate paranoia and in publishing work that used opacity to simulate profundity, they have now moved on. Unfortunately, the discipline of the Research Assessment Exercise, embraced by universities in which the shots are called by managers rather than teachers, has ensured that academics in humanities departments concentrate on overproducing "high impact" publications that are read by very few -- not even their closest colleagues.

With some honourable exceptions, the media, by giving equal prominence to the serious and the trivial, and often lacking proportion and perspective, have weakened greatly their ability to document and challenge the erosion of personal freedoms by an increasingly corrupt, intrusive and centralised State. A misplaced egalitarianism, that gives equal hearing to the well-informed and to the angry ignorant, along with a hostility to professionals and experts -- usually called "so-called experts" -- also serves the purposes of power-hungry governments.

As for youth -- well of course we can look to them for a clear-eyed excoriation of the status quo. Unfortunately, this is often evidence-free and experience-free. Besides, the dissidence of the young is mixed up with other things: rebellions against parents, attracting partners and sorting out who and what one is.

Where, then, are we to look for the guardians of freedom? This is where the growing cadre of healthy elderly people may be increasingly important. They no longer hope for promotion or preferment. They are not required to bite their tongue or grovel. They have no targets to deliver on, no need to devote themselves to the futile productivity of academe, no asinine mission statements to write or respond to. They are at liberty to think and to say what they like. They can therefore shout out what those who have families to feed and careers to promote -- and so must remain on-message at all costs -- would not dare mutter in their sleep.

Because they have nothing to lose by speaking the truth; because they may be better able to bear the stigma that results when one casts timidity and calculation to the winds, they are (to use the jargon) a "precious resource" that we can ill afford to overlook.

Elderly mavericks, by the way, should not be expected to squander themselves on the kind of futile, unthreatening rebellious gestures such as "wearing the colour purple" that Jenny Joseph envisaged in her over-anthologised poem.

This is not an argument for a cognitive gerontocracy but a call for this new and growing generation of rentiers to take up the battle to defend the freedoms they have enjoyed but which, if present trends are unopposed, their grandchildren may not.

(From The Times)

And since the person putting this post up is a retired man aged 63, the above must be true!


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