When is the time to act? Now

To act or not to act, that is the question. Or at least that’s where Rachel Wright of Stanford University and Hilary Schaffer Boudet of Oregon State University began their paper when reflecting on what does, or does not, lead to social movements emerging in the context of environmental risk. They note that ‘social movement theory has rarely been tested with counterfactual cases, that is, instances in which movements do not emerge’. 

I was reminded of that when tuning into a webinar from The Oxford Institute of Ageing (@oxford_ageing) which asked ‘Do we need a Human Rights Charter for older people?’. Very much arguing in favour were the two speakers, Nena Georgantzi, Policy Coordinator on Human Rights and Non-Discrimination at Age Platform EU, and Ken Bluestone who leads Age International’s policy and influencing work in the UK and internationally. 

Speaking in the context of COVID-19 which, as I have remarked upon in a previous blog(and in which you will see more from in a forthcoming opinion piece with Town Planning Review), has illuminated openly ageist discourse in public rhetoric and policy narrative, Georgantzi and Bluestone reflected on the issue of age discrimination in society and why it is so critical that we need a charter to protect against it. 

Georgantzi condemned the existing legal frameworks and tools with which we could fight such discrimination, pointing to the very bias that exists in them in the first place. Just as media stories too readily demonise older people and population ageing as a looming crisis, so too is this rhetoric reinforced in policy documents using language of ‘frail’ and ‘elderly’ or where older people become objects of care, a burden on health and social care, the tax-payer, and the individual. Georgantzi spoke of our collective lack of consciousness on ageism, invoking the concept of hermeneutical injustice wherein the experiences of older people, and the injustices against them, are not readily understood as injustice. 

Bluestone delved further into the ways in which COVID-19 has created and contributed to the ‘othering’ of older people, and the extent to which that othering thus grants permission to treat the life of an older person as somehow less valuable, and therefore grants permission to society to treat them differently. 

We do need that Charter, that legal framework which is not built on existing bias and that creates a universal obligation to protect and value older people. 

It is here then, that I was reminded of the idea that we can rarely test social movement theory with the counterfactual, the situation in which the social movement did not occur. We can. At the moment anyway. 

Bluestone noted that there aren’t ‘enough angry older people’, a point picked upon by Professor George Leeson of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. And I echo it. We, bar any poor health or accident, will age. The very fact of the apparent crisis of an ageing population should be enough to remind us that one day we too will be the object of that fear. It is time to remember that and look to how our parents, our grandparents, ourselves may be stigmatised and agitate against it. 

But it is also time to look for more understanding. One question in the webinar was what can academics do? 

We can push forward the debate and contribute to efforts to reframe discussions of ageing from ones of crisis, to ones of opportunity that are responsive to need rather than assumptive of vulnerability. Work I am doing with colleagues in the Department of Geography and Planning (@livunigeog @livuniplanning) at University of Liverpool will help with this. 

But there will be challenges. We are developing a tool to better support policy makers in understanding what the nature of need in their local older population is, rather than those automatic assumptions of vulnerability based on counts of ‘65+’. This tool then is limited by what data are available to us that we can best capture that need, or indeed those opportunities. Yet where we are conscious of that we can still help stimulate the debate that is needed to drive forward an ageing movement, one that helps create the space for acceptance of a Charter for Older People even while striving to negate the very need for it. 

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