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Catastrophe averted?

The leaders of the rich countries went to Washington to save the world from sliding into deep recess

Vincent Cable

Shadow chancellor, Liberal Democrats

By the low standards of economic summitry, the G20 meeting rated quite high. There was a predictable, no doubt pre-written, communiqué, full of the usual banalities. And the meeting suffered from the absence of the world's most important politician, who hasn't yet taken up office. But, these necessary caveats aside, there were important achievements.

The first is that the meeting took place at all. The ludicrous pretence of the G8 (or G7) that the old western powers should set the global economic agenda has been punctured for good. On a purchasing power parity basis, China has the second-biggest economy in the world and India the fourth. It has been clear for some time that China is lender of last resort to the global system (by, in effect, underwriting US government paper) and the main source of global incremental demand (and commodity price inflation). The Chinese self-parody as the pupil sitting meekly at the feet of a dominant, but erring, master defies belief. It is obviously right that China, India and the other main non-G7 countries should be at the top table.

The second achievement was the clear realisation that unless governments hang together they will hang separately. Enough has been learned from interwar history for us to understand the follies of beggar-my-neighbour economics. Perhaps a warning shock was being sent across the bows of the incoming Obama administration not to reinvent the protectionist tariffs of the 1930s in a new guise, directed at China or Mexico in particular, or aiming to salvage the US auto industry through public subsidy. But this new-found concern for open markets has not yet communicated itself to EU or Indian or Chinese trade negotiators, who show no enthusiasm for lifting the block on trade liberalisation under the Doha round.

While trade policy is on the back burner, macroeconomic policy co-ordination is not. With a few exceptions - Germany notably - there is recognition of the need for aggressive monetary and fiscal policy and for large-scale intervention to recapitalise banks. These interventions can be and are being undertaken nationally. But governments acting in isolation attract critical attention from capital markets and currency speculators, as Gordon Brown is discovering. Structures like the G20 are the best safeguard against chaotic, unilateral action.

Will Hutton

Economic commentator

It was remarkable to gather so much economic and political power in one room to address a common agenda. That was the good news - along with commitments to co-ordinate fiscal expansion, to expand the lending power of the IMF and World Bank (Japan's $100bn loan to the IMF will increase the Fund's lending capacity by 40 per cent), to boost cross-border supervision, to tackle credit rating agencies, to reassess mad accounting rules and require member countries to attack the bonus culture in the financial services industry. A year ago such an agreement would have been inconceivable.

The bad news is that much of this is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Four things have to be recognised: that the world has profound imbalances between high-saving, high-surplus areas in Asia and the Gulf and low-saving, structural deficit countries in the transatlantic economy (Germany excepted); that a system of floating exchange rates and private banks can no longer take the weight of recycling those savings; that unless the system is de-risked and the burden of adjustment is placed on deficit and surplus countries alike, the global system faces breakdown; and finally, that the business model used by the banks to recycle surpluses - securitisation and hedging in the $360trn global derivatives market - is broken.

In plain English, China must accept that its currency must appreciate; Britain and America, that they cannot run their economies on foreign savings; and all players that there has to be a system of semi-fixed exchange rates between the yen, the euro and the dollar.

One tough reality is that, for all their new economic weight, China, Brazil, Russia and India do not have fully convertible currencies - nor do they want to accept the discipline involved in having convertible currencies.

Ann Pettifor

Fellow, New Economics Foundation

Over the past decade, the Group of Eight leaders turned their exclusive annual meetings into jamborees. Rock concerts, protesters and celebrities added populist glitz. However, the real purpose of the meetings - international co-operation and co-ordination - was ducked. At last year's G8 Summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, George W Bush and Gordon Brown vetoed Angela Merkel's agenda item for co-operation over tighter international regulation and financial oversight of capital markets. That task, they argued then, could safely be delegated to "the invisible hand". Now that the fantastic, self-regulating machinery of free markets has proved grossly malfunctional, it is good to hear talk of enhanced co-operation and regulation.

But, in places, the joint statement issued by the 20 world leaders borders on the delusional. The phrase "We must . . . ensure . . . that a global crisis, such as this one, does not happen again" implies that they are avoiding the next war when they are still losing this one.

Even more questionable is the call for continued "economic growth". In a world of finite resources on a planet with limited capacity to absorb toxic emissions, and with bushfires encircling Los Angeles, we would have hoped that world leaders had some awareness of the threat of climate change and of the limits to economic growth. But no. The gravest threat to global security - our rapacious attitude to the earth's resources - is once again whipped up with talk of "market principles, open trade and economic growth".

Jesse Norman

Senior fellow at Policy Exchange

One might have thought the G20 summit a good moment for some straight talk from the Prime Minister. Instead, the political wind machine was cranked up to full blast. The summit would be a second Bretton Woods. Gordon Brown would forge a new global consensus on co-ordinated intervention to stimulate growth (while, of course, leading reforms to prevent the banking crisis from ever recurring). Luckily virtually none of this was true, or the summit would have been a hopeless failure. With fiscal measures already widely adopted, the G20 hardly needed Brown's leadership. No surprise that he returned empty-handed.

Labour has moved from despondency to a manic desperation to remain in office. The result is that the ever-fragile concept of truth in politics has wholly been cast aside. Thus the humiliating bank nationalisation has been dressed up as an act of far-seeing economic statesmanship. And a sensible warning from the shadow chancellor that current economic policy puts sterling at risk has been condemned for breaching an irrelevant semi-convention dating from the time of fixed exchange rates.

Alex Brummer

City editor, Daily Mail

There is a golden rule of international financial meetings. The larger the "G" number, in other words the more countries involved, the less likely it is that any worthwhile or binding decisions will be taken. So while it was wholly encouraging that the G20 summit brought a number of emerging market leaders to the top table of finance, including China, Brazil and Russia, there was never any real prospect of the event becoming the new Bretton Woods.

Furthermore, the summit took place in the final days of the lame duck administration of George Bush. Once it became clear Barack Obama was going nowhere near the confab, the event became even more of an irrelevance.

European leaders may like to blame Wall Street and Anglo-Saxon capitalism for the credit crunch and the recession now spreading through the Group of Seven like wildfire, but there is no hope of concerted international action without the new White House and Federal Reserve on board.

Almost all that was agreed could have been decided before the leaders left home. The commitment to reviving the Doha trade round is pure motherhood and apple pie. The prairie populists on Capitol Hill are unlikely to be enthusiastic.

At the core of the proposals was the commitment to use fiscal measures, tax cuts and public spending to kick-start global economies. But despite Gordon Brown's enthusiastic embrace of a new Keynesian big-spending approach - as advocated by Nobel prize-winner Paul Krugman - he neatly forgot to mention that such big-spending ways were only for those countries with a "policy framework conducive to fiscal sustainability". The UK with its ballooning budget deficit, which could hit £100bn or more next year, is clearly in no such position.

It is hard to fathom in what way the G20 was "historic", as the Prime Minister claimed in the Commons. There is little original in a bunch of old ideas designed to remove risk from the financial system and control executive pay. That is what regulators should have done before the banks ploughed into the iceberg.

James Buchan

Author and financial commentator

What is the Financial Stability Forum? What is "mitigating against pro-cyclicality in regulatory policy"? What, if anything, has the G20 summit in Washington on the weekend of the 15 November achieved?

Nothing very much, is the answer to all three questions. In the twilight of a discredited US administration, and with President-elect Barack Obama absent, the meeting was never likely to achieve a great deal or generate excitement in the US. Yet the final declaration, drafted with suspicious ease by the delegations on Saturday night, has something for everybody but not enough of anything to scare the financial horses.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president whose idea the whole thing was, gained some support for more institutional government of trade and finance, but no super-gendarme international of the type that has been directing financial traffic in the French imagination since the 17th century. As Jean-Pierre Robin wrote in the Figaro: "Those with fantasies of supranational supervision will need to change therapist." The US, jealous of its commercial sovereignty even when it is going about without its shirt, put paid to those Gallic dreams and also gained some platitudes about free trade.

The new commercial powers, not only Brazil, Russia, India and mainland China but also rich oil producers such as Saudi Arabia, received diplomatic recognition of their deep pockets. "The world's geopolitical structure has a new dimension," the Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, said. "There is no logic to making any political and economic decisions without the G20 members - developing countries must be part of the solution to the global financial crisis."

I suspect the winner is Gordon Brown. The next meeting will be held under his presidency in London in April. The Washington ragbag of proposals to reform or tinker with the current system, such as reminding us about the Financial Stability Form and mitigating against that regrettable pro-cyclicality in regulatory policy, appeals to his technical vanity and plays to his technical strengths.

Paul Mason

Economics editor, Newsnight

There was a sense in Washington, despite the throbbing engines and bulletproof glass, of powerlessness. The communiqué was stronger on the causes of the crisis than on co-ordinated solutions. Policymakers are right to stay focused on the near-term dangers: these are country-level debt default, the rising cost of borrowing for non-financial companies, rapid job losses and - via feedback - further destabilisation of the banking system. We are moving into the phase of fiscal stimulus but there are powerful technical arguments that say without "quantitative easing" - that is, printing money to stimulate demand - it doesn't work. The same people who told me it would come to recapitalisation, that the TARP (troubled assets relief programme) would not work, are now saying: nationalise the banks and print money.

Despite the urgency of the focus on near-term dangers, what was obvious at G20 was the lack of vision as to the future growth model of capitalism. The problem was seen as a failure of regulation; the solution a pretty weak brew of re-regulation that will get diluted even more as the lobbyists begin to have influence. But the problem is more fundamental: the growth model based on high debt instead of high wages has failed and will be hard to revive.

Peter Mandelson

Secretary of State for Business

We have been caught in a global whirlwind of extraordinary force.

It has brought with it a fear that has gripped the world economy and taken hold here at home. We are seeing it every day, with fear among consumers that is depressing demand; fear among banks that is inhibiting them from lending; fear among small- and medium-sized businesses that banks are just about to cut off their credit lines. The choice facing us and governments around the world is this: do we act decisively to counter and overcome this fear, or do we become paralysed by it and fail to act?

The government has already shown its willingness to take the bolder course as the first mover in setting about stabilising the banks. What is needed now is action to stimulate the demand essential for recovery. The UK economy, like economies in the rest of the world, needs a shot of adrenalin.

The Bank of England has already made a significant cut to interest rates. This monetary stimulus now needs to be matched by a fiscal stimulus. And because this is a global crisis this is best done if the benefit of the measures taken nationally is maximised by the same measures being taken around the world. That was the message from the international conference in Washington, as governments recognised the need to take the action necessary to stimulate their economies.

People will say, "But you are resorting to borrowing in order to deliver the stimulus that's needed." My answer to that is, what is the alternative? We certainly haven't heard one from the Conservatives.

David Cameron and George Osborne, trapped by their desire to oppose everything the government does, refuse to accept the scale of the challenge the world's economies now face and the prescribed international action. Their stance appears to be, if the rest of the world disagrees with us, it is because the rest of the world is wrong. The result is incoherence and an Opposition at sixes and sevens. One minute this is "do all it takes" and the next it is - as we heard this week - leave the recession to "take its course".

Sitting on our hands watching houses repossessed and businesses go to the wall is certainly not the approach being urged on me by people I have been speaking to up and down the country. They want their government to act to stimulate demand in the economy here and now. With all due prudence, that is what we are going to do.

Diane Coyle

Author and economist

The G20 meeting confirmed a robust and rapid response (by past standards) to recession, even in the US operating under a rump free-market administration. Policymakers around the world have been shaken to see the financial system at the brink of collapse - on their watch.

Yet it is difficult to predict how severe the recession will be. Bank lending to businesses and individuals is virtually frozen. In many (but not all) areas of the economy, activity has come to a halt. The last financial boom and bust, ending in 2001, had surprisingly little impact on jobs and growth, as the financial bubble had become increasingly untethered from anything real. Today's vicious circle of evaporating liquidity is much more serious, but lower interest rates and bigger government deficits will help. The underlying trends are easier to outline. Some challenges are clearly unaltered, such as climate change and our ageing society.

The technological opportunities are still there, too, in communications, the internet and biotechnology. Globalisation will be less driven by finance in future, but it will not be unwound. It would take a generation to turn back the clock on economic linkages, and the cultural impacts are permanent. In fact, the crisis has underlined our interdependence across national borders.

What has changed is the political economy of globalisation. In the triad of efficiency, fairness and freedom which dominates political choice in democracies, fairness will take priority in the years ahead, and the drive for ever greater productivity gains will retreat. The semi-nationalisation of the banks has started to shift the boundary between public and private domains; we will have to think more carefully about how to govern private choices that have big social spillovers. The G20 did not touch on this profound question of governance.

Iain Macwhirter

Political commentator

The G20 was largely a throat-clearing session and was never going to put in place the foundations of a new international financial system. Progress on the stalled Doha trade talks is encouraging but provides no guarantee that protectionism will not raise its head in the coming economic slump.

It is inevitable that countries faced with financial collapse will try to defend their economies by any means possible. Britain is already far down the road of "beggar my neighbour" economics by the "managed" devaluation of the pound, a crude attempt to boost UK industry by lowering the prices of British exports and creating a de facto tariff wall around imports from abroad. It won't work because Britain does not make much of anything any more except debt, and the world has plenty of that already.

But the collapse of the pound will seriously damage what is left of UK financial services. No one in their right minds would put money into the UK economy now, with the property market collapsing, UK banks insolvent and government borrowing likely to reach £100bn in the next 18 months.

Gordon Brown seems to believe that sterling is like the dollar, and that people will buy our dud pounds whatever the likely losses. However, as we are discovering, sterling is not a reserve currency and unlike the US we cannot force other countries to pay our debts. The future for our battered island is likely to be hyperinflation punctuated by appeals to the International Monetary Fund for emergency aid. Forget about spending our way out of recession - the UK government simply lacks the resources to fund the huge borrowing that would be required. Something will have to give. Brown will have cause to regret being so beastly to the Icelanders.

Richard Reeves

Director of Demos

James Carville, the hardened political aide to Bill Clinton, said that if he was reincarnated he'd want to come back as the bond market: "You can intimidate anybody." Right now it seems odd to think of any financial markets threatening anybody. But it is one of the ironies of the current economic situation that the capital markets still have some serious muscle.

Western governments, faced with recession, need to throw a lot of money at their ailing financial institutions - money that can be raised only by selling Treasury debt, mostly to the capital-rich investors of the Far East. For Gordon Brown, this is likely to become a more difficult sell, as Prudence is given the push and the pound takes a nosedive. Even national exchequers invite sceptical scrutiny in this new, nervous world.

The financial crisis is at heart a loss of faith. The word credit derives from the Latin credo - "I believe". When the Titanic of the financial world - in the shape of Lehman Brothers - was allowed to sink, the bonds of trust stretching around the world were snapped. In an instant, everyone stopped believing in each other.

A number of sensible measures should be on the agenda when the G20 reconvenes next year, including legislation to ensure bonuses in financial services are paid on the basis of five-year performance; new "pro-cyclical" provisioning rules requiring finance houses to increase their store of capital in economic upturns; and tougher, independent regulation of the rating agencies whose doe-eyed assessments of banks built on a mountain of paper helped get us in this mess.

There is, however, no quick technical fix for such a dramatic loss of confidence. Trust can be lost in the blink of a market-trader's eye - but it will take years to rebuild.

TEN THINGS THEY ACHIEVED

  • 1 Created a road map aimed at stabilising the world economy and overhauling the banking system with targets for the end of March 2009
  • 2 Advocated Keynesian big-spending
    “fiscal stimulus”
  • 3 Expanded from a small club making world decisions to recognise the importance of the economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China
  • 4 Agreed to reform international finance institutions, including better transparency and supervision of credit ratings agencies
  • 5 Agreed that the Financial Stability Forum should include emerging economies
  • 6 Banks and hedge funds to hold increased levels of capital and cash
  • 7 Recommended “supervisory colleges” for all major cross-border financial institutions
  • 8 Return to the Doha round – trade ministers to meet in Geneva next month
  • 9 Instructed G20 finance ministers to draw up plans and timeline
  • 10 Agreed to meet again, in London next April

. . . AND FIVE THEY DIDN’T

  • 1 Agree a future growth model for capitalism. Instead they reconfirmed their “shared belief in market principles”
  • 2 Agree detailed plans for regulatory reforms of banking
  • 3 Establish a plan of action for achieving the already endangered Millennium Development Goals
  • 4 Set up an international supervisory body with sufficient power to control global markets
  • 5 Halt the run on sterling, which fell sharply against the euro and dollar

Alyssa McDonald

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess

Tate London 2014
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The good daughter

The truth is I don’t want to be a full-time carer, any more than I wanted to be a full-time mother. And I don’t want to live with my ma any more than she wants to live with me.

In Tate Britain is a painting by the Victorian artist George Elgar Hicks of a woman ministering tenderly to her invalid father. It is called Comfort of Old Age. The work is the final panel of Hicks’s triptych Woman’s Mission. The first part, Guide of Childhood, in which the same figure teaches her little boy to walk, has been lost. But the second panel also hangs at the Tate in London: Companion of Manhood shows our heroine consoling her husband after ghastly news.

Hicks depicted “woman” in her three guises – mother, wife, daughter – and in her ideal state, the selfless provider of guidance, solace and care. Her life has meaning only in so far as it nourishes and facilitates the lives of others, principally men.

Domestic and emotional labour, we call it now. Feminists have long campaigned both for this to be acknowledged as real work and for men to do their share. Women cannot reach their potential at the office, notes Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In, until men pull their weight at home. But this has always been the toughest, messiest fight, because it is about domestic harmony, varying standards of personal hygiene, nagging, sulking and love. Besides, there is an enduring sense, little changed since Hicks’s day, that not only are women better at caring duties, but it is their natural lot.

I have spent a long time in the first two panels of the triptych: a partner/wife for 30 years, a mother for 21. (My two sons are grown and pretty much gone.) And I have seen, in the course of my adult life, enormous progress in those two domains. Men no longer assume that wives will dump their careers to follow them on foreign postings, for instance, or that mothers cannot work. According to research by the Office for National Statistics, women still do 40 per cent more household chores than men but, growing up, I never saw a man make dinner, let alone push a pram. Marriages are increasingly equal partnerships and each generation of fathers is more engaged.

Now I have reached the third panel, the trickiest bit of the triptych. My 93-year-old mother is 200 miles away in Doncaster, and since my father died, five years ago, she has been living alone. She is – I must stress – admirable, independent, uncomplaining and tough. A stoic. Someone who doesn’t mourn her every lost faculty but relishes what she can still do. Yet almost everyone she ever knew is dead, and I am her only child: her principal Comfort of Old Age.

For a long time, the landscape was a series of plateaus and small dips. Her little house acquired rails, walking frames, adaptations; she wears an emergency pendant. But until she broke her hip four years ago, she wouldn’t even have a cleaner. (“I don’t want strangers in my house.”) She managed. Just. But since Christmas the terrain has shifted. A persistent infection, two collapses, three ambulance rides, tachycardia (in which your heart beats to the point of explosion), but then, after three weeks, back home. Finally I persuaded her to have carers – nice, kindly, expensive – for an hour five times a week. (She demanded days off.) A slightly lower plateau.

Then, a few weeks ago, a neighbour called to say that my ma’s curtains were still closed at 4pm. She was found dehydrated, hallucinating. (She hadn’t pressed her emergency button; it was a non-carer day.) I hurriedly packed my bag for God knows how long, then scrambled north to sit by her bedside believing, for the third time this year, that I was watching her die.

For three weeks, on and off, I slept alone in my teenage single bed, in the house where I grew up, weeping every time I opened a cupboard to see her cake tins or Easter eggs for her grandsons. That week, I read a news report about how having children makes people live two years longer. Of course! As her daughter, I was her advocate, hassling doctors for information, visiting, reassuring, making sure she was fed, washing her soiled clothes (even long-stay units won’t do laundry), trying to figure out what to do next. God help the childless! Really, who will speak for them?

Finally, having wrestled her into (almost) daily care – she is very stubborn – I returned to London to find a letter. I am a Times columnist and write a weekly notebook slot, occasionally featuring my mother. I am used to harsh reader critiques of my life. But this, I must say, stung. It was from a man who lives in Cheshire (he had supplied his name and address), and he wanted me to know what a terrible person I am. “I have been puzzled when reading your column over the past months how you have been able to leave your mother – whose serious health issues you have used as copy . . . to holiday in Mexico, East Anglia and Norway.” I was “selfish and self-regarding”, and I should be ashamed.

He was not the first. Online posters often chide me for maternal neglect, and otherwise kind letters sometimes conclude: “But I do think your mother should move in with you.” Anyway, my egregious Mexican holiday had been long delayed by her illness and although she was well when I left, I was braced to fly back at any moment. The Norway trip was to visit my son on his 21st birthday. No matter. How dare I have a life.

I was reminded of when my children were young and I was a magazine editor. The guilt-tripping, the moral judgement: the looks from full-time mothers, the pursed lips from older relatives. Why bother having kids if you work full-time? Back then, I was “selfish and self-regarding”, too. My husband, who worked vastly longer hours, was blameless.

So let me warn you that just when you’re free from being judged as a mother, you’ll be judged as a daughter. It is the last chance for reactionary types who resent women’s career success, or just their freedom to live how they choose, to have a dig. Look at this selfish bitch, weekending in East Anglia when she should be a Comfort of Old Age.

When we say someone is a Good Dad, it means he turns up to football matches and parents’ evenings, gives sensible advice, isn’t a derelict alcoholic or a deserter. I know many fathers do much, much more. But that is the bar to Good Dadhood. It is pretty low. To qualify as a Good Mother, however, a woman must basically subsume her entire existence into her children and household and may only work part-time, if at all.

So, what is a Good Daughter? A US report showed in 2014 that daughters were twice as likely as sons to care for their elderly parents. In a survey of 26,000 older Americans, Angelina Grigoryeva, a sociologist at Princeton University, discovered that daughters provide as much care as they can manage, while sons do as little as they can get away with. If they have sisters or even wives, men are likely to leave it to them. I can find no equivalent UK study, but I’d bet the same is true here.

I know many sons who help out with ageing parents: Sunday care-home visits or a spot of DIY. Some do the truly grim stuff, such as washing and toileting a frail, dementia-patient father. And all sons – unless they are estranged, or cruel, or in prison – are Good Sons. Being a Good Daughter is a much tougher gig. However often I go north, sort out bills, buy new ironing boards, listen to my mother’s worries, take her shopping, organise her Christmas presents and stay awake worrying, it won’t be enough. A friend visits her disabled mother every day, despite her family and career, sorts out wheelchairs and carers, runs errands. Her three brothers drop by for ten minutes once a fortnight: so busy, so important! Yet my friend’s care is a given, and her brothers are “marvellous”. A truly Good Daughter would quit her job, have her old mother move in and tend to her alone.

The truth is I don’t want to be a full-time carer, any more than I wanted to be a full-time mother. And I don’t want to live with my ma any more than she wants to live with me. Now that I’ve served out my motherhood years, I want to do other things with my life besides looking after people. Is that a shocking admission? Men wouldn’t give it a second thought.

Yet politicians of left and right are always telling us that the solution to our screwed-up social-care system is the family. To socialists, the “care industry” is further evidence of marketisation and the profit motive taking over the personal sphere. Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, has said that he favours the “Asian model” and the care minister David Mowat said recently that we must care for our parents as unquestioningly as we do our children. In practice, these all amount to the same thing: women, chiefly daughters and daughters-in-law, toiling away unpaid.

After Christmas, while my mother was living with me, frail and recuperating from her infection, I hired a private carer so that I could work. This lovely woman was boundlessly kind, calm, patient, unfazed: I am none of these things. Ask me to fix the car, get sense from a doctor, shout at the council: I’m Action Daughter, at your service. But expect me to sit still in a room making nice for hours and I am crap. In Hicks’s Woman’s Mission, I have failed.

A Times reader chastised me for hiring help: “Well, I’d expect to look after my own mother myself.” And I was reminded once more of early motherhood, when I employed a nanny. Yes, a nanny, not a childminder or a nursery. I know the word makes left-wing men crazy: you cold, rich, privileged cow. That nanny, funnily enough, allowed both my husband and me to work, but it was me who got the rap.

Even hiring a cleaner is “problematic”. A good feminist shouldn’t expect a poorer woman to clear up after her, I hear. To which I reply: my mother was a cleaner for thirty years and her meagre wages paid for my new shoes. When a couple hire a cleaner, it is nearly always to compensate for the shortfall in male domestic labour, yet it is the woman, again, who has somehow failed.

In the third part of the triptych, paid help for elderly parents is even more of a dereliction of female duty. My mother’s next-door neighbour has cared for her invalid father, unaided, for 20 years; a friend has remodelled her house to accommodate her elderly parents. Across Britain are millions of people who care for relatives with little respite. When I say that a private carer now visits my mother, I do so with shame because, most days, this is the only company she receives. A nice lady called Sue helps with her jigsaw puzzle, chats to her, does some light housework and fetches her shopping. But what she is paying for is a surrogate me.

It tears up my heart. Yet it is complicated. What if you live far from your home town: should you be expected to return? My unmarried aunt came back after an interesting single life to live with my grandmother until her death. Her siblings didn’t thank her for this sacrifice. Indeed, without the status of marriage, she was treated with disdain.

Last month, as a Nigerian health assistant helped Ma to the hospital bathroom, I remarked that she lives alone. “Why?” came the horrified response. In her culture, this made no sense. But northern European society has evolved an individualism that often transcends notions of family and duty. This applies to the old and offspring alike.

Largely our elderly do not want, Asian-style, to be infantilised by their children, or bossed around by their daughters-in-law. (The claim that Indian parents are “revered” is undermined by rampant elder abuse.) My ma wants to watch Corrie, eat quiche, not feel she is in the way. “I like to please myself,” is her refrain. Her home of almost 50 years is her carapace: her central fear is of being too ill to stay. Despite the much-discussed return of “multigenerational living”, the most popular British solution is the “granny annex”, where an old person maintains autonomy behind her own front door.

Moreover, members of the baby-boomer generation recoil at living with their parents. We spent our teenage years trying to escape. What if your upbringing featured divorce, personality clashes, arguments, abuse? What if, like me, you left your working-class culture for a completely different life – what if you have little in common? Or your widowed father now expects you to run around after him like a skivvy, just as he did your mum? You can reject your roots for your entire adulthood, then your parents’ frailty yanks you home.

Now those Guide of Childhood years seem simple and golden, although the parallels are striking. From stair gates to stairlifts; from pushchairs to wheelchairs; the incontinence provision; the helplessness. But raising children is largely a cheerful, upward trajectory. Elderly care is an uneven descent, via those dips and plateaus, towards some hidden crevasse. There is no compensatory boasting, showing cute snaps on your phone. You learn not to mention geriatric travails. People look uncomfortable or bored: too grim.

But, just as a child shows you the world anew – look, a spider, a leaf, the sea, Christmas! – through clear, unjaded eyes, older people reveal what truly matters in the end. A reader remarked that it was probably best that my mother, at 93, now died. I replied that she gets more joy in M&S than some get from a Caribbean cruise. With age, the world distils down to elemental pleasures: seeing a grandchild, a piece of cake, a sunny day, the warmth of a hand. When my father was very close to death and when recently my ma was at her sickest, both still managed to utter the words “I love you”. Just as when a frightened child cries for you in the night, you are utterly irreplaceable, needed.

And it will be your turn soon, when your parents are old. We are living longer, often fading out in medically preserved decrepitude over many years. I can’t understand why both as individuals and as a society we refuse to plan. Well, actually I can. It’s horrible. As my mother always says: “When it happens, it happens.”

Yet there is so much we could do. Come up with a cross-party agreement on how to fund social care through the tax system. Invest money and imagination in ways that old people can remain in their home, rather than slash home help. Develop friendship schemes and clubs, so the lonely aren’t so dependent on faraway children. Enable the old to use the internet: few are online, though no one would benefit from it more. Rip up the care-home model in which the elderly are objects in a chair: let people be their full human selves until the end.

Above all, we must redraw that final panel of the triptych. Don’t judge daughters more harshly than sons. Don’t let men slink away from their fair share. Don’t wield the family as a glib solution. Instead, acknowledge that it is hard, heart-rending work, being a Comfort of Old Age. 

Janice Turner is a columnist for the Times

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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