Why young and old people need to mix

Elderly people live increasingly isolated lives, and that is bad for everyone.

Frank Furedi

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Topics Politics UK

A few years ago, when I visited a well-known music venue in Nashville, Tennessee, I was struck by a feeling that there was something unusual going on in this place. It took a few minutes before I realised what was special about the venue: it was jam-packed with people drinking and having a great time but unlike in most places in the Western world, especially in the UK, this was a generationally mixed crowd. Elderly people in their 60s and 70s were sitting alongside teenagers. It almost felt like a big family event.

My evening in Nashville stood out because I had become accustomed to going out in the evenings to spaces where young people are conspicuous by their absence. Such generational ghettoisation has become the norm in the UK, as highlighted in a report published this week by the advocacy group United for All Ages. The report claims that Britain is one of the world’s most age-segregated countries, concluding that ‘people of different ages are unlikely to mix with each other outside their own families’. It asserts that this ‘age apartheid’ intensifies existing divisions in communities.

While the claim that Britain is one of the world’s most age-segregated countries lacks firm empirical evidence to back it up, there is considerable anecdotal evidence to show that the elderly have indeed become ghettoised, and often have little contact with the younger generation.

Back in 1997, I carried out a pilot research project that looked into the connections between older generations and young people in Swale in East Kent (1). Our elderly respondents said they felt an intense sense of cultural distance from young people. Many of them were uncertain about how young people would treat them in public spaces. Some said they often cross to the other side of the street to avoid passing groups of schoolchildren. A significant proportion of them believed they could no longer command the respect of young people, and as a result were anxious about going into public spaces in the evening.

In all this, they were not simply concerned with their physical safety – above all they were worried about the cultural distance that separated them from young people. As a result, they felt ill-equipped to negotiate relationships with children and young people. And they felt like they were becoming strangers in their own communities as a result.

Many of them explained their fears about their own personal security in relation to ‘the times we live in’. Although this research was conducted 23 year ago, the trend towards the breakdown of intergenerational relations has, if anything, become more consolidated.

There are many things influencing this segregation of generations. Throughout the modern world, communities have become fragmented. The most mobile section of society – the young – often tend to leave their family behind, driven by various economic and social factors. But what is distinctive about the Anglosphere in general, and the UK in particular, is the ever-widening cultural distance separating the generations.

In the UK, the elderly are increasingly portrayed as lacking the capacity to make a valuable contribution to community life. Old people are frequently portrayed as out-of-touch individuals with archaic and prejudiced views. This sentiment was widely promoted in the wake of the Brexit vote, when the elderly were denounced as a reactionary bloc of xenophobic people. Political resentment of the elderly is frequently promoted by champions of the apparently ‘forward-looking’ youth.

The demonisation of elderly people is also striking in the domain of child-rearing. The experience, customs and insights of previous generations are increasingly ignored. Older people are castigated as far too old-fashioned for our modern times. Time and again, mothers and fathers are told that they must not bring up kids in the same way as their parents or grandparents did. From this perspective, grandparents offer a negative model of child-rearing – a moral contrast to the supposedly progressive parenting advocated by 21st-century technocrats. No wonder so many elderly people feel that society does not take them seriously.

So-called experts claim grandparents rely on out-of-date methods that can harm children. In 2013, a report published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology even concluded that grandparents can be a threat to their grandkids’ health. The study, based on a survey of 9,000 UK families, found that one in every three children aged three who were cared for by their grandparents were obese.

The transformation of grandma into a health risk to the children in her care is now a regular theme promoted by parenting experts and researchers. Another report, published in the International Journal of Obesity, claimed that the risk of children becoming obese is 34 per cent higher among those whose grandparents cared for them full time.

The ridiculing of the experience and wisdom of grandparents is symptomatic of a wider tendency to distance the younger generations from the elderly. This comes at a great cost. The cultural isolation of older people undermines the coherence and integrity of community life. Human contact between young and old is essential for forging a dynamic community.

What’s more, demonising elderly people corrodes the authority of adulthood itself. The culture war against older people’s way of life undermines the capacity of the adult world in general to provide guidance to the young. Repairing intergenerational bonds is essential to creating a truly forward-looking community.

Frank Furedi’s How Fear Works: the Culture of Fear in the 21st Century is published by Bloomsbury Press.

(1) Frank Furedi and Tracey Brown, Disconnected: Ageing in an Alien World, 1997, University of Kent.

Picture by: Getty.

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Comments

anna livia fleischschleifer

13th January 2020 at 11:36 pm

Postwar housing / family politics are a lot to blame for, presenting the ‘nuclear family’ living in a small ‘home unit’ as something positive and aspirational. Of course it’s desirable from the ideologue’s viewpoint: separating the young from the presence of the older generation, as well as forcing the young into controlled-environment childcare (due to parents at work) – all the groundwork done for further indoctrination in the education system.

Having been born & grown in Füredi’s old country in a sprawling old house, i was spared kindergarten for my grandmother being at hand. So instead of having to socialise with other unsolicited dumb toddlers, i was surrounded with:
– my grandma’s old possé, a wildly witty and sharp-tongued lot;
– my mother’s clique, mostly intellectuals / creative types / STEMs / scholars of all sorts, and their children
– and my (older) sister’s friends.
(It was an all-female family, alas.)
By the age i started primary school i learnt more Latin and swear-words than ever since in life. In fact i’d say my ‘education’ happened pretty much at home, schooling only provided ‘information’ (if / when we were lucky, in thenadays’ state-communist ed. system).

In short, the most conducive environment for ‘personal development’ from an early age is a multigenerational home – with a few stray uncles & aunts thrown in, preferably. Large enough to have privacy too, of course. Also cheaper and greener than micro family units. And a lot less susceptible to indoctrination.

Gerard Barry

14th January 2020 at 9:35 am

I’m becoming increasingly sceptical myself about pre-school “education”: kids being institutionalised at a young age either because Mom needs to work (financially speaking) or because she just doesn’t want to spend time with her offspring.

steve moxon

13th January 2020 at 6:08 pm

Well, it’s not quite as divided as Frank paints here, out in the sticks, former red wall land in our locally-owned local.
And in town, open mics often have a good mix of youngsters and far older escapees from folk clubs.
And when you do engage with young strangers, usually they’re refreshingly non- if not anti-‘wokery-pokery (unless they’re just being polite, which also young folk seem very much to be).

Hugh Gibney

13th January 2020 at 5:38 pm

Interesting article, and I’m pleased to note that Mr Furedi uses the term “so-called experts” rather than “experts”.

Linda Payne

13th January 2020 at 5:05 pm

Censored again

Linda Payne

13th January 2020 at 3:44 pm

The old people I know have much better and fuller lives than I do. I suppose it is my fault that I have a mental illness that the system refuses to treat; my fault that no one wants to employ me and after 10 years spat out by a voluntary organisation because my unpaid work is no longer any use to them. Also my fault I have been cut off by all my family for being ill. Yes I have a husband and I’m glad his life is better than mine. Benefits stopped, no money and yet once I was a nurse until I was pushed out for having depression. I would rather be twenty years older but with a life, I have no intention of seeing old bones

Dominic Straiton

13th January 2020 at 5:31 pm

Bless you Linda. Iv been in a loony bin, had electric shock therapy . the whole thing. The answers within. The best thing I can offer is to find work where banter and the normal communication of taking the piss is the natural order of things. Where you are simply another person. Itl be hard as the mental health industry has bolloxed it all up. Nutters like us are the best people Linda. Lots of Love. Dominic X

Dominic Straiton

13th January 2020 at 3:25 pm

In the 18th century Pitt the younger aged 24 steered the nation to victory against Napoleon. Frank whittle was 21 when he invented the jet engine. Steve Jobs was 21 when he invented the apple computer. Greta Thunderberg was just 16 when she regurgitated a load of bollox soundly refuted by the great Dr Shiva Ayyadurai who managed to invent the email aged 14. The young of today have invented a thousand meaningless pronouns when the opportunities for human advancement are right there to be grasped. They are to busy being woke. What a waste of life.

Gerard Barry

13th January 2020 at 4:14 pm

“The young of today have invented a thousand meaningless pronouns when the opportunities for human advancement are right there to be grasped.”

Well said but bear in mind most young people – or most people in general – aren’t intelligent enough to advance humanity in any meaningful way. So all they can do is get whipped up into a frenzy over climate change and other issues they actually know nothing about. I suppose it makes them feel good to be part of something, God bless them.

ZENOBIA PALMYRA

13th January 2020 at 3:24 pm

This generational divide is a direct consequence of the decline of Christianity and the unchecked operation of rampant bourgeois capitalism. You cannot love God and Money. You have a God-ordained duty to care for the elderly and infirm.

Dominic Straiton

13th January 2020 at 5:14 pm

Somethings wrong im agreeing with Zenobia!! however in the past all the old were already dead along with most of the children. When Bismark created the first old age pension he set it well above the average age of death. God might have ordained it but the social experiment will never be able to afford it. Will my kids wipe my arse as I wiped theirs. Hope not. Looking forward to heroin and cocain fuelled, short retirement.

ZENOBIA PALMYRA

13th January 2020 at 6:59 pm

My views are more complex than you realised.

david rawson

13th January 2020 at 10:15 am

this is not just a generational thing, young people, by and large, do not go out as much as they used too either. this is from age 3-21. They have become very home/gadget orientated and have many more friends on social media, than proper mates.

The elderly people I know have more real friends and more real conversations.

Ven Oods

13th January 2020 at 9:09 am

The Nashville reference was interesting, but how many other areas of the US would exhibit the same shared experiences? In the UK, I can’t see many oldies learning to appreciate Stormzy , and most younger folk (even those clever ones on Uni Challenge) seem to know little about popular music from more than 10 years ago.
I suppose that watching football is the one area of shared experience left for the diverging generations.
If you accept that, as Greta charges, we have stolen their futures, is there much hope for healing any generational rifts?

Gerard Barry

13th January 2020 at 9:47 am

Greta is indeed unfortunately symptomatic of the attitude many young people have towards their elders. The older generation are apparently to blame for “destroying” the planet. What so many spoilt young people don’t seem to get is that, were it not for the hard work, ingenuity and sacrifice of previous generations, they wouldn’t currently enjoy the high standards of living that they do. Eaten bread is soon forgotten as they say.

Joyful Cynic

13th January 2020 at 1:44 pm

While you are indeed correct in your observation about football – my local non-league club has a fan base of people with great-grandchildren down to babes in arms, all hope is not lost in other areas. A Saturday night visit to a particular local pub will like as not reveal a clientele from er “18” to 88 (or older) enjoying the music of local bands – who may be playing anything from pure blues through to techno punk. Originals and covers. Now we are lucky to have that pub, withs its owners love of willingness to have bands of all sorts – but here the generations can still mix. Maybe more research is needed in the disappearing of local live entertainment.

Gerard Barry

13th January 2020 at 8:03 am

The disdain for the elderly seems part and parcel of woke, left-wing culture. The elderly are castigated for being “racist” and “xenophobic”. Sure, some of them are, but isn’t it amazing how this is now seen in Western countries as the ultimate sin, while other, in my view far more grevious sins, go unpunished and even uncriticised (e.g. abortion)? Nobody’s eprfect and young people need to come down off their high horse and stop being so judgmental about the elderly for their alleged faults.

Stephen J

13th January 2020 at 7:52 am

I would say that it is the surfeit of surveys which is a major cause of this dissipation between the generations.

Too many experts finding out nothing about anything at great public expense.

Evelyn Ella

13th January 2020 at 5:58 am

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Michael Lynch

13th January 2020 at 12:40 am

Coming from an Irish background, and also now living back in Ireland, you see young and old mix as a matter of course. The family bond is still strong here and the shared love of outdoor sports, for both girls and boys, is a shared family activity. All market towns, and even some smaller villages, have their own GAA sports ground and all are well used. It’s one of the reasons we don’t have violence on the terraces although there is a fierce competitive spirit between the counties. Consequently, younger people are much must receptive of advice given from their elders; not just about sport either. They even seek it out occasionally!

Gerard Barry

13th January 2020 at 8:06 am

Being Irish, I can attest to the fact that we have a good community spirit, at least in rural areas. However, with increasing social change (urbanisation, decline in religious observance, immigration, etc.), I’m worried that this will change.

ZENOBIA PALMYRA

13th January 2020 at 3:25 pm

Give it a few years, Gerard. Once capitalism has loosened the social bonds, you will be as screwed up as England!

Finbarr Bruggy

13th January 2020 at 10:36 pm

And in the traditional music scene, young, old, male and female all mingle together quite happily.

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