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The radicalisation of the elderly

While many have welcomed the sight of young people on climate change protests over the last few years, some have taken a dimmer view. Usually criticised for spending too much time in front of screens, by putting their devices down and hitting the streets our youth has driven older generations furious. Young protestors are driven by criminal intent, elderly commentators claim. The youths on our streets are merely thugs looking for a fight, they reason. The poor dears are the puppets of shadowy forces, they moan.

Critics suggest that young peoples’ concerns are misplaced, for the simple reason that youngsters don’t have the life experience necessary to consider the environmental impact of air travel. Their elders argue that youths have been turned on to climate change and other movements through ignorance of the facts.

White kids protesting against racial inequality don’t appreciate that All Lives Matter, according to late-aged, male, red-faced Twitter. The 78-year old Leader of the Free World reckons that a young girl’s passion for climate change is the result of anger issues. Monosyllabic letters in newspapers bemoaning ‘woke’ culture demand to know “What is wrong with kids these days?”

The increasing polarisation of political debate in the UK is matched by a widening gulf between the young and the old. While exceptions within these age groups clearly exist, the young and old have very different positions on issues as varied as climate change, immigration, technology, employment, healthcare and housing.

A 2019 report revealed that the UK’s elderly are more likely to agree that “globalisation has not benefited most people” and that “jobs and wages have been made worse by technological change.” A separate study revealed that 68 per cent of over 65s support reducing immigration into the UK, compared with only 38 per cent of those under 25.

Another survey revealed that 44 per cent of over 55s do not feel they will be affected by climate change, compared to 24 per cent of younger age groups. Nearly a third (32 per cent) of over 55s disagree or strongly disagree they can limit the impact of climate change by changing their behaviour, compared to only 10 per cent of younger age groups.

And, for readers in the UK, here’s your regular reminder that the over-65s were more than twice as likely as under-25s to have voted to leave the European Union. As usual, Brexit is the prism through which all of these issues can be viewed, as it sits at the centre of a curmudgeonly Venn diagram that also includes dislike of immigration, dismissal of climate change and, yes, older age.

Despite all those family zoom calls, the COVID-19 pandemic has simply widened the chasm between young and old. Now lockdown has passed, the elderly seem to despair of the apparently reckless behaviour in youths that gather in groups. And it's not all about kids returning from Greek holidays: one elderly Norfolk County Councillor was incensed when she saw teenagers “necking” at a bus stop once lockdown had passed. “It was absolutely disgusting”, she fumed, “I don’t imagine any of them were in the same family.”

Without a doubt, the UK’s elderly have suffered more from the coronavirus than the young. As of mid-August, 89% of deaths in the UK involving COVID-19 were among people aged 65 years and over. The young, however, see themselves as having made economic and educational sacrifices during the pandemic to keep an older generation safe. Ignorance may lie behind the belief of some youngsters that the coronavirus can’t affect them, but it’s undeniable that it’s their jobs that are being lost and their educations that have suffered, because of the virus and the way its containment has been handled.

Older people form an increasing proportion of the UK’s population and by 2068 there will be 20.4 million people aged 65 and over, accounting for more than one in four (26.4 per cent) of the projected population. Economic power and political influence have followed older generations in recent years, as their reliability to turn out and vote has proved electoral catnip for politicians.

Long before COVID-19, pensioners benefitted most from the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). Even when the pandemic is over, they still will be the primary beneficiaries. Yet this age group is the most hostile to the immigration on which the health service depends. Having voted in the majority to find an illusory £350 million a week for the NHS, the same generation wants to reduce the number of people who can come into the UK and work as a hospital porter, nurse or surgeon.

But whatever economic favours are exchanged for votes, someone will be needed to both care for these older people as they age, and ensure that the economy can grow to meet the cost of doing so. They will be needed to fund the austerity-busting, triple-lock state pension that rises by the highest of either wage growth, inflation or 2.5%. Those same people will be drawn from the younger generations; a demographic that is less concerned about immigration yet has the most to lose from the competition for jobs that immigration may invite.

It’s clear that the positions that the elderly have taken on a wide range of issues will both affect themselves and the younger generation on which they will depend. Which raises a couple of questions: why would a generation pursue policies that undermine its own needs? And why would the elderly deny future generations a healthier, safer, and more prosperous future?

One study suggests that countries underinvest in education and technology because the old don’t expect to gain from the longer-term benefit of this investment. Another explanation for this disconnect may be the cushion of economic security: UK pensioners’ income grew by 47 per cent between 1999 and 2010, while average earnings rose by only 14 per cent.

Regardless, while an older generation accuses a more militant youth of being ignorant or having been misinformed, unduly influenced and left itself open to extreme views, maybe the elderly should look closer to (its mortgage repaid) home?

It is tempting to explain the opinions shared by many of the elderly as a late in the day attempt to deal with a fractured and confusing world. The yearning for a simpler past. Nostalgia, basically.

It’s true that while those who fought in the Second World war are now few, the over 65s who grew up in the war and afterwards have closely tended the commemoration of the twenty-fifth, fiftieth and, most recently, seventy-fifth anniversaries of the end of an event that shaped the modern world. They have much to look back on with pride, including the rebuilding of Europe, the creation of institutions such as the UK’s NHS and the emergence of a European Union that has kept the peace in a continent that had seen years of war.

Yet this only makes the scorched earth thinking behind the more extreme positions now taken by the elderly particularly rich, as they come from a group of people that benefited first-hand from post-war economic growth and the white heat of technology. The first generation to holiday abroad on a mass scale, own a car and access universal healthcare now seems to resent a younger generation that likes avocadoes and good, if expensive, coffee.

The problem perhaps is not so much looking back to the past, but misremembering it. Indeed, it often seems that much of the UK’s present-day challenges can be assigned to a failure to deal with its past. This has spawned a cultural history based on a narrow, incomplete and selective vision of military success. It’s reflected in the Spitfire jigsaw puzzles and tinned travel sweets at garden centre checkouts and revealed in the commemorative olde worlde plates advertised in the back of Sunday supplements. It permeates the opinion and letters pages of the newspapers favoured by the elderly, and it may explain their radicalisation.

I appreciate that radicalisation is a strong word. But what else can explain the hardening of opinion as the arteries harden at the same time? Nostalgia alone cannot explain the adoption of positions that run contrary to reason and science, undermine the common good and even spoil narrow, self-interest. There must be some form of zealous influence at work.

Radicalisation is not the preserve of the young, disadvantaged and easily influenced. It doesn’t always take seed in the shadowy corners of a madrassa or on a right-wing 4chan board. Perhaps it’s in plain view. A search for the source of this radicalisation among the elderly might start with where they get their news.

In the UK, the left-leaning Guardian has the youngest readership and the joint-smallest percentage of over-65s in its readership, at 21 per cent, with the Financial Times. The right of centre Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph have the largest share of readers over 65, a demographic that makes up almost half of their audiences (45 and 46 per cent respectively.) The Daily Telegraph has the oldest average readership, at 61 years old. Younger generations are far less likely to read a physical newspaper, full stop.

The result is a print news media that caters to its audience by running touchpaper stories on incendiary issues. Alleged rises in immigration and detailed reports of any crime committed by immigrants. The supposed impotence of the UK in the face of EU ambition, its tentacles choking a National Way of Life. The belief that climate change can’t be man-made, isn’t happening or, indeed shouldn’t be a bad thing if it is. See also: the BBC, public sector pay, ‘woke’ students, banned Christmas events and political correctness in general.

To take the subject of immigration alone, one study confirmed that the subject was portrayed negatively in newspapers between 1996 and 2005. Another study showed that newspaper articles in the same period focused largely on the economic cost of immigration and associated criminality. According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, “the space for right-leaning angry opinion is fairly well-served in the UK by a number of established outlets who publish a fair amount of such material.” Like the poster of queuing Syrian refugees allegedly making their way to the UK, much newspaper coverage of issues such as immigration effectively amounts to clickbait, but without the closure of a click. Tutbait, if you will, at best. Ragebait, at worst.

Given that the elderly read more of the newspapers that have written negatively on the issues that challenge us, is it a surprise that they have been left with opinions that are out of kilter with the young, and at odds with the needs of a world that has changed around them?

It may be unclear whether the shaping of opinion around these issues by newspapers has influenced political policy. But a steady diet of half-truth headlines and snide comments from newspaper columnists may have turned an older generation more radical and, in courting their votes, political parties have pursued increasingly extreme policies such as Brexit.

Those political parties are now online, of course, and increasingly rely on Facebook and the demographic cut-through it provides. Newspapers are online also but have made hard work of the transition. The elderly too are moving online: they may be the smallest demographic on Facebook, but they are the fastest-growing. The share of older Americans on the platform has more than doubled since 2012.

What’s more, a 2019 study in the USA showed that Facebook users over 65 shared nearly seven times as much fake news as the youngest age group. While a minority of people overall share fake news, the fact that the elderly do so at a far greater rate than the young may be explained by digital literacy, suggested the report’s authors. Or it could be that “memory deteriorates with age, potentially undermining the tools people use to discern fact from fiction.”

The UK’s broadcasting regulator, OFCOM, has approved a licence for GB News, a TV channel that many believe will act as the UK’s equivalent to the darling of the US right-wing, Fox News, when it launches in 2021.

Young people don’t care much for television. While many age groups are watching less TV, 65 to 74 year-olds are the only age group for whom viewing remains stable year on year. They now watch more than five times television each day than those aged 16 to 24.

Just like the newspapers that have successfully courted the same audience, we might expect GB News to cater to their elderly viewers’ needs with a similarly slanted take on the issues that matter to them. In the pursuit of the grey pound, it’s easy to picture daytime advertisements for equity release schemes and cruise ship holidays being supported by a similarly targeted news agenda.

And, if this is the case, where will the continued radicalisation of the elderly lead? The bloody years of the French Revolution lead to the observation that “Revolutions eat their own children.” They may also consume their grandparents.

Shortly before posting this article, the climate change action group Extinction Rebellion blocked printing works in Hertfordshire and Liverpool, where newspapers including The Times, The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph are printed.

This disrupted the distribution of the Saturday editions, and caused no end of frustration to the elderly gentleman — without facemask— whom I overheard in Waitrose complaining to a young and surprisingly patient Partner — with facemask — about the lack of his window on the empire, sorry, world; the Daily Telegraph.

The protest at the printers also provides the best ending to this essay short of Greta Thunberg turning up at the same demonstration and lighting papier maché effigies of the eighty-something Barclay brothers, owners of the Telegraph newspaper, from the dying embers of a massive, fair-trade spliff.

The day after the blockade, the Sunday Telegraph (average reader age 61, remember), was literally beside itself with rage. There was a splash on the front page while pages two and three were devoted to story after story about the protest. Pull quotes from politicians at the top of the same double-page spread warned of the threat to democracy that the blockade represented. The newspaper has proudly removed the paywall from its online coverage for the weekend in support of “free speech.”

“We will lay out the arguments; we will publish the facts. We will continue, in the face of the mob, to do our job”, the Sunday Telegraph’s fight-them-from-our-second-home-beach-hut editorial blustered.

I love newspapers. Even the ones I disagree with. And as the various mouthpieces with an eye on their political fortunes in the Telegraph confirmed, a free press is indeed the function of democracy. Any attempt to curtail it should be vehemently resisted.

And yet. Frothy outrage in a newspaper that has given a platform to climate change sceptics and forcefully pushed an extreme agenda onto its elderly bubble of a readership is a little rich.

Democracy is founded on differences of opinion, which in turn are contested at the ballot box. But when you have pushed a certain line against the public interest — and that of your readers — for so long, invoking democracy to double down on the same vitriol is (and I have spent time considerable time choosing these words), taking the piss.

Written by

A pick and mix of words; now online, better packaged and more expensive, like everything post-COVID. The sour cherries are best. The opinions are my own.

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