Despite being past many things, elders will always be here. Nina Teasdale says it’s time to recognise them as valuable cargo, as much as heavy responsibilities.

An ageing population is usually cast as a social and economic burden. Yet while they bring pressures for societies and economies, we rely on, and take-for-granted, the care work that old people undertake and absorb. We nevertheless continue in society to focus on tensions rather than interdependence between the generations.

This was evident at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. During the early months of 2020, media commentary portrayed “older people” as vulnerable and frail, and in need of care. This led to talks of a trade-off between protecting the elderly and the economy, and the elderly and the young in relation to diminishing medical resourcesas if it was a stark either/or choice.

This theme of intergenerational tension is also currently pervading the social care debate in England, following the government announcement of an increase in National Insurance contributions to pay for NHS and social care reforms.

The plan on the one hand has been lukewarmly welcomed for providing much-needed reforms (and resources) to social care and reducing pressures on the NHS – described by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) as “better than doing nothing.” Yet on the other hand it has been met by social commentators with heavy criticism.

The government’s policy is provoking a sense of intergenerational unfairness.

Raising revenue through National Insurance rather than Income Tax, as Tom Waters from the IFS asserts “…is the latest in a long line of reforms which have tilted the burden of taxation towards the earnings of working-age people and away from the incomes of pensioners.” This point is echoed by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who has said the government’s policy is provoking a sense of intergenerational unfairness around the treatment of generational wealth and income.

It means that those who rely on earnings for a living will contribute an extra 2.5% of their wages towards the costs of social care – as Alife Stirling argues the 1.25 percentage point increase to both employee and employer NICs “…will ultimately come out of workers’ take-home pay”.

Yet this won’t be the case for those who take income in interest, rent, capital gains or pension annuity. As Vince Cable points out, the government is trying to “sweeten the political pill”.  Thus, for pensioners there will be a suspension of the “triple lock” with a temporary stopping of the earnings part of the pension “lock”, promising an inflationary rise, set at a minimum of 2.5 per cent. This exacerbates intergenerational tensions with pensioners ostensibly protected from sliding back into poverty (rightly as Cable argues), while low-paid workers are left to themselves. 

By pitching the old versus the young, this ignores the heterogeneity of older peoples’ experiences.  Indeed, not only has the retirement age been rising, but women, along with disabled people and people from black, Asian and minority ethnic  backgrounds are more vulnerable to poverty in older age and to suffering health disparities.

After all, the State Pension is not actually much to live on. Further, let’s not forget that living a life as a recipient of care is not a holiday and can be a dehumanising experience, with a loss of dignity and liberties.

Last weekend, for example, I spent time with a relative in her 70s who has Parkinson’s disease and has been living in a care home for a few years now – her home sold to help pay for her care. Due to staff shortages, she hadn’t been washed or showered in over 10 days.  She said this wasn’t a one- off. Her care home staff were permanently run ragged, and this was just one of many stories she could share.

Also overlooked and taken for granted by pitching the old versus the young is the significant contributions of old people to the functioning of our social, economic and affective lives.  According to Age UK more than 2.3 million people aged 65 and over are carers in England, carrying out 54 million hours of unpaid weekly care. Of this figure, some 400,000 are aged 80 and over.

Alongside providing adult social care support to spouses or relatives, “older people” who are grandparents are often key in helping with childcare, especially when childcare costs are high, as they are in countries such as the UK, US, New Zealand and Australia or when formal childcare is unavailable.

According to Age UK, more than 2.3 million people aged 65 and over are carers in England, carrying out 54 million hours of unpaid weekly care.

Nationally and globally the policy context is currently being defined by the economic and social fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. This context is being compounded by the fact that many countries have been facing a care crisis for decades. This is due not just down to the impact of an ageing population. Declining marriage and reduced fertility rates, and cuts to public services and social protection systems following the 2008 global financial crisis are all contributing factors. Brexit is also likely only to reduce the supply of workers willing to provide social care at low wages.

In the UK, some may argue that social care is finally now receiving government attention. But it is pivotal that policy is predicated upon a detailed understanding of care and care needs (in terms of gender, age, race and class) and through systematic gender and equality impact assessments and analysis of potential policy and economic decision-making. It is time the state stepped up and recognised the centrality of care to society and the economy, and valued the taken-for-granted and unpaid contributions of both old, as well as young, people rather than hiding behind intergenerational tensions of its own making.

Nina Teasdale

Nina is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Economic Justice, at Glasgow Caledonian University. Gender and equality related issues are central to her research interests, with a particular focus …

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