Send Blair and Cameron to Care Homes

Should 16 and 17 year-olds vote? That old chestnut was revived earlier this year in a piece by Gordon Brown appearing in the pages of The Guardian. Whether the dour Scot, not commonly known for being down with the kids, was trying to get one over his more youth-friendly and soon-to-be-departed neighbour one can only speculate. Is courting the youth doomed to fail?

'Courting the snot-nose in baggy-jeans looks like dramatically bad electoral maths'

What is certain is that since 1997 New Labour has sought consistently to identify its political brand with youth and all its cultural trappings. Blair dutifully subjects himself to teen interrogators on MTV, practices his glottal stops on Radio 1 and flanks himself with gap-year politicos at party conference every year. Conservatives too have attempted to shake off their 'blue rinse' image in the interests of improving their youth appeal, from William Hague's ill-judged choice of headwear at the Notting Hill Carnival to 'Dave' Cameron's rather more successful call to the resident youth of East London to 'Keep It Real.' Add George Galloway's recent foray into reality TV and it would appear that politicians across the spectrum will go to considerable lengths to win the approval of the Heat-reading section of our community.

So Brown's intervention is a piece within this larger political onslaught on youth. As a strategy, however, what makes it puzzling is the fact that, on paper, courting the snot-nose in baggy-jeans looks like dramatically bad electoral maths. In demographic terms, Britain's youth is shrinking. The 2001 Census revealed that for the first time the proportion of the population over the age of 60 exceeded the proportion of under 16s, with the former set to grow dramatically into the future. 

This means an ageing electorate as well as an ageing society, and meeting the needs of both is arguably the greatest challenge facing this generation of policy-makers. As the five-year review of the government's National Service Framework for services for older people published on Monday suggests, deep-seated ageist attitudes and unresponsive public agencies continue to dog the lives of the over-65s. Add to this widespread pensioner poverty, especially amongst older women, and the policy headache rapidly becomes a migraine.

'Big Brother, Playstation, Top Shop and Pop Idol are the chief markers of our national life in 2006, but it's pensions and care homes that dominate policy agendas'

No, the young may give them sex but it's the old causing our political leaders sleepless nights, or at least should do if they've been holding their demographic projection charts up the right way. So why, then, this continual obsession with youth in our political culture?

The answer lies in the wider paradox of the place of age in our society: youth is culturally ascendant but politically disenfranchised; the old are a potentially formidable electoral bloc, but are culturally marginalised. Big Brother, Playstation, Top Shop and Pop Idol are the chief markers of our national life in 2006, but it's pensions and care homes that dominate policy agendas. Party leaders may seek to rally youth to their brand, but if they have any sense they'll know that it's the old vote they must win and keep.

Increasing life expectancy means that old-age is an identity we'll wear for longer; indeed, it's the one we'll be keeping until the end of our lives. And there can be no shortage of age-related issues to get angry about, from crappy care services and badly-designed town centres to the cumulative stripping away of dignity and individuality which generally accompanies the ageing process in Western societies.  

But this potential has not been tapped. Whereas sexism proved a mobilising force for feminism, ageism has not created the same groundswell of outrage amongst the old. Why should this be the case? The problem of mobilisation, I think, can be attributed to two mutually reinforcing factors: firstly, the assumption embedded to a greater or lesser extent in all capitalist systems, that social worth is judged primarily by economic activity; and secondly, the cultural belief that old-age is an identity to be resisted and denied for as long as is humanly possible.

In order to create the leverage to bring about change, the old must take a courageous stand against the ageist values of the wider society, values that they themselves probably subscribed to in earlier life. It will mean embracing and valorising old age, and refusing to internalise those messages which portray older people as doddery, past-it, and an inconvenient burden on tax-payers.

The present tendency, however, is in the opposite direction. We disavow old age as an identity, telling ourselves and the world: 'I don't feel old!' But this self-denial is entirely the wrong strategy. The possibility of positive, happy ageing will continue to elude us as a society if we perpetuate the cultural marginalisation of the old. Nothing less than a massive re-branding of old age is called for, a task that older people themselves must lead.

There are already some clues as to what an aspirational identity for older people might look like. For example, SAGA's cruise ships, radio stations and glossy magazines present an attractive picture of retirement, and celebrities like Judi Dench and Maggie Smith offer positive mainstream images of old age.

Consumer products and celebrity glamour, however, can only represent one element of a new aspirational identity for the old, and one which very few will enjoy unless cultural change is propelled forward by mobilising the latent political power that older people possess. Cultural and political power often go hand in hand, but, in the case of age, our society has created a mismatch of mammoth proportions. Britain is getting older, and no enfranchising of newborns let alone 16 and 17 year-olds will alter that demographic reality. Brown and Cameron should heed that warning next time they trundle off to a photo-shoot at a youth centre or a school. They'd be helping us all out if they made it a care home or a lunch club.

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