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13 June 2012updated 07 Jun 2021 5:39pm

Today’s 75-year-olds didn’t fight the war – so why do we think they did?

By Jonn Elledge

The BBC is scrapping free TV licences for the over-75s. So, at least, Britain’s newspapers – who obviously have no commercial interest at all in running the BBC down – would have you believe.

Actually it’s more correct to say that the government handed responsibility for paying for this particular bung to the BBC, knowing full well that it wasn’t affordable, purely as a way of outsourcing the blame. But when have we ever let facts get in the way of kicking the crap out of the Beeb, eh?

Anyway. The reason I bring this up is not to talk about the licence fee, because honestly we’re all going to die and who has the time. Rather, I want to talk about this country’s increasingly warped perception of age.

Searching Twitter for the words “licence fee” and “veterans” is asking for trouble, obviously – but it nonetheless brings up a set of depressingly common, and depressingly predictable, sentiments. “D-Day veterans will now have to pay a licence fee to fund shite such as local BBC radio,” says “full-time binge-drinker” Rob. “The BBC propaganda machine,” writes James, whose love of Chelsea F.C. is matched only by his love of his wife and daughter, “has hit the wall today by trying to charge veterans the licence fee.”

Except – that’s not what’s actually happening at all, is it? The numbers don’t add up.

Today’s 75-year-olds were born in 1943-4. Even at a time of total war, toddlers were not being conscripted, kitted up and sent to help out at D-day. To have seen combat during the war you’d need to have been born in 1927 or earlier, making you at least 91 today. And while there were a few younger boys who lied about their age in the hope of seeing action, that a) was unusual, and b) shifts the age bar to about 88 at the lowest.

What percentage of British people today are old enough to have served? The most recent figures I can find on the ONS website are from 2017, when the proportion of people aged 73 of over – old enough to have just had their free TV licences revoked – stood at 9.8 per cent. The proportion of people aged 88 or over, though – a fairly generous interpretation of “old enough to be a WW2 veteran” – stood at a much lower 1.4 per cent. The relentless march of time being what it is, in the two years since those stats were compiled, the share of the former group who are also included in the latter is going to have fallen even further.

So, no: most over-75s did not fight an existential war for us. Most over 80s didn’t either, and not that many over 85s. The number of veterans who will be affected by the loss of the free TV licence is tiny, simply because the number of surviving veterans is tiny, too.

That doesn’t mean the elderly don’t deserve extra benefits for other reasons, of course. (I personally would be more inclined to find freebies for their precarious, debt-loaded, and never-realistically-going-to-own-a-home grandkids rather than the richest generation of old people in British history, but that’s just me.) It remains, however, an interesting question as to how our perceptions of the age of veterans got so out of whack with reality.

Partly, I suspect, it’s that – as anyone over 30 could tell you – there is often a gap between our perception of age and actually existing reality. If the average 40-year-old is still surprised to find they are no longer 28, it seems likely that they’re instinctively getting everyone else’s ages out by around a decade, too.

But I think there’s another, less comprehensible reason, which is that so many of the older generation actually are going around talking as if they fought the war themselves. The red-faced old men, who show up on Question Time to opine that if Britain survived the Blitz, it can survive a little no-deal Brexit, seem genuinely to think that surviving the Blitz was their own, personal achievement.

But it wasn’t. They weren’t there. And research shows it’s the Baby Boomers – those who were, by definition, born after the war, and who came of age in the 60s and 70s – who are by far the most enthusiastic about Brexit, as they have been about every other policy which might plausibly screw over their children. Those old enough to actually remember the war are nearly as pro-European as millennials, almost as if they can recall the damage that not having European unity actually did.

So why do people who were born years after the war seriously seem to think that they fought the thing? The charitable explanation is that they grew up in its shadow – living with rationing, playing on bomb sites, with war stories inescapable on film and TV – and so even though they didn’t live through the war,  it still coloured their critical coming of age years.

The less charitable explanation is that they think they deserve respect and free stuff, and that young people are too stupid to do the maths.

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