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Beware of growing oldies

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First published: The Times, 20/06/2009

Britain’s population time-bomb was the subject of the 21st Century Challenges debates sponsored by the Royal Geographic Society this week. My co-discussant, Angela Eagle, MP, the Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society, and I may have had a different sense about the urgency and scale of the issues involved but we certainly agreed on the principal challenges that our society faces.

There is no shortage of anecdote. Next week, for example, Radio 4 will broadcast The Age of Ming, a programme focusing on ageism in the media generally, and specifically with regard to Sir Menzies Campbell’s goal to lead the Liberal Democrats. This is only one example, though, of the ageism that still abounds in society, the workplace and elsewhere. The distinguished economist, public servant and author J. K. Galbraith at the age of 87 highlighted the “still”’ syndrome, which is when elderly people are taunted with questions such as “Are you still working?” or “Are you still taking exercise?” And so on. Galbraith’s advice was to draw attention to the questioner’s lack of grace and decency by saying, “I see that you are still rather immature.
Although the issue of ageism and the individual is important, ageing societies represent a strategic and fundamental challenge to our way of life that is no less important than climate change.

The Office for National Statistics reported recently that for the…more