19 May 2022


Why on earth not?

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

“Ageism? Well, it’s just like racism or sexism, isn’t it? A bigoted attitude passed down by previous generations. Wasteful too in economic terms. All that experience thrown away. Of course I’m right. Pass the Chardonnay”.

Actually, no, you are not right at all.

When Mrs Thatcher went to Russia to attend the funeral of Andropov she took the opportunity of meeting the Russian leaders. One thing struck her immediately: their age. “Can you introduce me to someone younger?” she asked one of her aides and he did indeed, to Mikhail Gorbachev, a younger, more modern and highly intelligent man with whom she famously said that she could do business.

The truth of it is that the old are different. To be sure there are exceptions but generally speaking people’s perspectives move as they grow older. That isn’t just because they will be unaffected by what happens in the long term but also because of the practicalities. Look around any group of people in their 70s and you will see that, despite the wonders of medical science, many of them are beginning to have health issues of one sort or another. One is a bit deaf and has to concentrate to hear; another is lame and keen to choose a higher chair; a third finds it difficult to remember names. None of these things are more than the usual incidents of advancing age but all are distractions from the job in hand. And does the much vaunted experience make up for it? Sometimes it does but it can also be an excuse for recycling old solutions rather than looking for new ones, a course which is all too attractive to lazy human beings in any event. “Do it the way it has always been done” may be a safe rule but it does not encourage originality.

And how easily we fall for it. Years ago I used to work in the City and watched teams of advisers at work. Often their advice differed and you would hear a bright young technician, obviously expert, suggesting one course while someone much older and less on top of the subject suggested another. “Let’s do it the way it was done in the past” was often the reaction, sometimes right but often a mere excuse not to get to grips with the detail. The result of all this is a bias in favour of the older generation out of line with their ability to deliver.

In the military they are aware of this and when war is declared command is usually pushed down the generations to make sure that operations are run by the young and active rather than old codgers who have been back at base for years. Why then in business and public life is everyone so anxious to avoid giving preference to the young, active and fresh? Why does section 13 of the Equality Act 2010 prohibit discrimination on the basis of age?

Yes, yes, I accept that the prohibition is qualified and that the section goes on to say that there is no discrimination where less favourable treatment is “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim” but what sort of a qualification is that? A general feeling that younger people would be better at coming up with innovative thinking is either not enough or would vitiate the statutory protection entirely.

The third decade of the 21st century is one where to survive the human race must overcome problems of existential importance. How do we arrange that dictatorships transfer power down the generations without bloodshed? How do we deal with pandemics? What can be done to reverse environmental change? These, and many others, are all areas where new insights and ideas are vital and many of those need to come from fresh and innovative minds. It really is not the time for a gerontocracy.

That isn’t to say that there are not moments when the wisdom of an elder statesman would not prove more useful than the fresh-faced enthusiasm of a junior, but the question of who is best to lead organisations and to run industries in particular circumstances is a subtle one and should be left to those industries and organisations to decide without statutory intervention. The bias in favour of the older generation resulting from the Equality Act should go.

And yet it would require some political courage to remove it. Old people have votes and politicians are anxious to harvest them. We already see this from the way that outdated benefits are retained without a means test, from how long it has taken to challenge the pensions triple lock. The younger generation can fairly ask whether in the allocation of resources the playing field is unduly tipped against them. Biasing authority in favour of their seniors is more serious than that because it deprives them of the ability to use their youth and energy to improve the society in which they are to live. There is no deprivation harsher than that.

Tile photo: Methuselah at Canterbury Cathedral. Photo (cropped) by Robert Scarth – FlickrMethuselah

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