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AGE-OLD CONCERNS

TECHNICAL & PRACTICE

We have, we are told, an ageing population. You don't have to tell me. Just look at the picture above - you wouldn't believe that I'm only 23.

Recently, the issue of age has come to the fore in political debate. Televised pictures of mobs of angry pensioners demanding a couple of extra quid a week helped kick-start the Pensions Commission report a few years ago. This report, which is intended to resolve the dilemma of long-term savings in the UK, will be published in the autumn.

Then there was Age Concern's lengthy campaign for a Commission for Equality and Human Rights (effectively a national body to tackle age discrimination). The campaign fell at the last legislative hurdle in April of this year, because of the timing of the General Election. However, as Jonathan Exten-Wright makes clear overleaf, European legislation means age discrimination will be outlawed in 2006.

So what are we to make of this concentration on the elderly? After all, it is not usual for serious politicos to pander to the wrinklies. As author and demographics expert Phil Mullen has said: 'New Labour's worshipping at the temple of youth has encouraged a dismissive and intolerant view of older people.' Indeed, the parsimonious pensions record - by governments of all colours - doesn't bear testament to a genuine commitment to the members of the third age.

Well, one of the clues as to what is going on is the constant muttering that pensions are a drain on resources - and that 'something must be done'.

Let's be clear. Even if state pensions were increased by 35 per cent they would only represent an additional 0.5 per cent of GDP. Unfortunately though, most commentators seem to have bought into the hype that society cannot afford pensioners - that as they get healthier and live longer, so more money is required to service them. But this type of thinking, prevalent in government agencies, treats pensioners as objects of our largesse, rather than as valued members of society.

Even lobbyists such as Age Concern have been put on the defensive, joining with the government to insist that we all should be 'encouraged' to save more in our youth. The worrying consequence of this line of enquiry is that it is people - not their pensions - who are considered to be a drain on resources. Effectively, this argument says it is personal irresponsibility, rather than government under-funding, that is the problem.

Penny-pinching thrift will doubtless soon become an integral part of the national citizenship curriculum.

But the consensus against 'ageism' is an even bigger problem. Age Concern insists that the retirement age be held at 65 because to raise it to 70 would increase the number of people on Incapacity Benefit.

In other words, at an arbitrary age of 65 it seems we start to fall apart and Age Concern would prefer that to happen in the privacy of our own homes rather than be a further burden on our employers and the Exchequer. Very noble, I am sure, but many pensioners who actually want to stay in gainful employment have to take the gold watch instead.

Finally, the campaign against ageism will place even more onerous constraints on people's social interactions. So, for example, under the directive, ageist 'harassment' needs only to be defined in terms of the individual's perception.

If someone feels 'humiliated' because of their age (or simply 'intimidated' by being in the company of younger people), then they can bring a case. If there was ever a policy so designed to introduce tensions between the generations, this is it. Read on.

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