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25 January 2017

It’s time we were honest about our generational crisis

Every year, more Britons pass the historical finishing post of 65, lumbering on to fourscore and ten.

By John Sutherland

On 23 November, Philip Hammond delivered a rather Schopenhauerian Budget forecast. “Broke” did not begin to describe it. We were in the soup.

One cause – Brexit – is tractable, at least notionally, if we can endure a lot of pain and are lucky. The other pressing cause, which the Chancellor mispronounced as “long-gevity” as he lapsed momentarily into Klingon, is not at all fixable. It runs against a wholly intractable ethical imperative: “care” of the old, the same sort of care as we give to newborn babes.

“Honour thy father and thy mother,” the Fourth Commandment instructs: even when they are superannuated husks of paternity and maternity. The statistics are chilling. Every year, more Britons pass the historical finishing post of 65, lumbering on to fourscore and ten. Most will lose physical capability en route. One in three, pessimistic predictions inform us, will lose their wits. “Sans everything,” as Shakespeare put it – yet, by every legal definition, alive.

Care of the aged is clogging up the NHS to destruction. It is bankrupting local councils. We have an epidemic. The remaining feasible solution is “social care”. There are no cheap ways of providing that care. As Hammond delivered his jeremiad, the Guardian featured a state-of-the-art “care home”, Chelsea Court Place, for the terminally brain-decayed. Cost: £3,000 a week.

Literature – one of the antennae of the human race, in the words of Ezra Pound – has sounded warnings and fantasised solutions for as long as we could read. In Oedipus Rex, the young hero has a moment of road rage with an annoying old codger at a crossroads. What does he do? He kills him. Why? Because he’s in the way. Although he only dimly knows it, he wants what the old guy (his father, did Oedipus but know it) has: the kingship of Thebes and the old guy’s young wife (his mother, did he but know it). The trappings. They should be his. He’s young, for God’s sake.

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Delve even further back and recall from your bedtime stories the tale of “Sinbad and the Old Man of the Sea”. The intrepid voyager finds himself wrecked in the Garden of Paradise. He meets a poor and decrepit old man, who asks Sinbad to carry him on his shoulders. Sinbad obliges. Big mistake. The old man’s legs lock around Sinbad’s neck and throat. He will, he realises, have to carry this old man until one of them dies. Our hero releases himself by getting the old man drunk. And kills him.

Some less Dalek-like (“Exterminate! Exterminate!”) solutions have been put forward by progressive writers. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, science devotes itself not to extending life but to making 60 years of life “youthful”. Then a clinically administered overdose of the happy drug soma sends the youthful oldster on his or her happy way. (Huxley died, after a life devoted to hedonism and war-dodging, aged 69.)

This winter brought not one but two productions of King Lear to the London stage. “Ripeness is all,” Edgar mutters. What comes next is rot. Lear is well into brain rot. As Goneril and Regan see, he has outlived his time. He is fourscore and upward (Methuselean in Elizabethan terms – Glenda Jackson, a sprightly fourscore, did him full justice at the Old Vic).

Perhaps Huxley was right. Yet you can’t, in a society run on democratic principles, enforce, or even encourage, pro bono euthanasia. Despite Martin Amis’s prophecy back in 2010, a euthanasia booth and a free Martini on every corner are not going to happen.

Society’s only solution at the moment seems to be that old British tactic: avert the eyes, spew pieties and hope the problem goes away. One could call it a policy of covertly, perhaps even unconsciously, sanctioned neglect. Some (including me) see it as a low-energy intergenerational war, in danger of hotting up into something really nasty.

Surely what is required now is honesty. Thomas Hardy (who lived on, wits intact, to the age of fourscore and seven) put it well: “If way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst.” What that better way might be is as yet obscure. But let’s, for God’s sake, have a full look for it.

“The War on the Old” by John Sutherland is published by Biteback

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This article appears in the 18 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era