It was always going to happen when the baby boom generation felt
vulnerable. Those optimistic, thrusting people of the sixties now
creeping towards their sixties faster than they ever anticipated,
have already knocked down other artificial barriers that stood in
the way of their ambitions. And in doing this they changed the
world, for the better mostly. Maternity benefits, improvements in
child care, gender equality, class mobility, workers rights,
self-employment, became the focuses of effective campaigns when
they affected the lives of the people entering or fighting to enter
positions of influence, or the people they cared about.
Alzheimer’s disease, until it afflicted Iris Murdoch or the parents
of other talented communicators, remained on the sidelines of the
elite’s consciousness. Autism and vaccination debates, similarly,
only began to be taken seriously when metropolitan elites felt
their children were at risk. Today, if the government believes that
ageism needs seriously to be addressed it must be because so many
powerful people are now alive to the appallingly wasteful age
discrimination which is still legal in this country – unlike say,
the US where grey power has ensured proper rights for older
citizens. Things can only get better when a cause has potential
allies such as Polly Toynbee, Patricia Hewitt, John Humphrys, Lord
Puttnam and many other movers and shakers whose bones are perhaps
starting to creak a little.
Our obsession with age is a national psychosis and the age at which
people are made to think they are too old should make us weep.
There are people in their 20s already botoxing themselves in
hurried lunch breaks and dying for flesh lifts and tucks. Thirty is
considered a near-death age in some zippy occupations – think tanks
certainly – and at 40 experienced applicants for jobs are told they
are past it and not to bother. Fifty is obviously completely beyond
the pale – unless we are talking about fat-cat, with-profits chaps
who can do no wrong and are paid magnificently if they do.
Meanwhile the demographics are moving in the opposite direction.
European populations are re-forming, with more older people in
proportion to children. Better health, longevity, low birth rates
are all responsible. This is new in our collective histories.
European societies will have to rethink attitudes to older people.
Without real proactive encouragement to immigrants, which is not
likely while there is such dangerous hostility to immigration
across the European Union, the only way our economies can sustain
growth is through re-activating the ambitions and skills of older
In some ways this is easier than might be imagined. Health
permitting, the world is full of possibilities for older people –
whether it is new careers, excitement, activity, sexual
satisfaction. A growing number of these British citizens simply
don’t think that it is all over by the time they are 60 and their
invisible roles – as indispensable child carers, informal social
workers, self-employed professionals and volunteers in so many
charities – need now to be extended to paid and recognised work.
The future is not orange but grey, and the first step towards
grasping this this is to outlaw age discrimination.
The complaints, though, have started, from two camps who normally
agree about nothing in employment policy. Employers have produced
their usual chants of protest: “this is all going to be too costly
for business and what about that inalienable right to discriminate
against people for economic reasons?” Unions and employees are
worried that this is a backdoor way of stealing their automatic
state pension entitlements after 60.
There must be no compulsion on workers to stay in work if they wish
to retire, but why force people in to their armchairs before time?
To thoughtlessly take against the new legislation, to always
suspect policy makers, shows up the worst of trade union politics.
And I say this as someone who has never espoused the
neo-conservatism of New Labour.
But on this one the government is right and for the right reasons.
There is one more exciting outcome when this law gets on to our
books and into our culture. For the first time ever, most Britons
will hopefully agree we need legal protection from prejudiced
decision-makers. None of us can avoid getting older or the
experience of ageism and that means that the support for such
legislation will be strong and Britain will move further into
becoming more equal and fair for all its peoples.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a journalist and