While Oscar Wilde was clearly not contemplating the finer points of identity construction when he penned these celebrated words, they hint at the highly ambivalent, contingent and multiple nature of identity. People can be many different things and yet for older people, one could argue, there is an increasing emphasis on a singular classification of identity based on their age.
In popular discourse older people are generally represented according to their age and are often negatively portrayed. A UK study in 2002 reported that older people felt not only under-represented on the television, but what portrayals there were of older people were ‘marginal’ or stereotypical. Another study in 2004 conducted by TNS for Age Concern revealed a perception among a majority of adults (58% per cent of those aged 16 and over) in Great Britain that newspapers and television portray older people in a predominantly negative way. Such condescending and negative discourse on older people, particularly pervasive in the media and public parlance, has led to reductive conceptions of older people’s identity based on the themes of ‘burden’, ’dependency’ and ‘vulnerability’. If we consider the representation of the ageing population more widely, this has also become synonymous with pejorative phrases such as ‘demographic time bomb’ or ’rising tide’, thus giving rise to and engraining discriminatory and negative attitudes towards older people. This in turn has serious consequences for how we treat older people, in terms of age discrimination, in health and social care, equal and fair access to goods, facilities, services and treatment in employment.
This discernible tendency to treat older people as a monolithic entity is not only a descriptive misrepresentation, but theoretically flawed in that it effectively ignores the plurality of our affiliations and attachments as individuals involving class, gender, profession, language, science, morals and politics. Being old has become an all-purpose explanation eschewing the complex realities of an individual’s myriad attachments and affiliations by the simplifying process of stereotyping. A study for Help the Aged on the ‘voice’ of older people by the ILC- UK supports this view, the report suggests there is little evidence that the widespread perception of the older population as an entity is shared by older people themselves. Such an essentialist view of older people may provide external simplicity to the understanding of identity negotiation, but critically the individuals concerned invariably fail to recognise the prescribed characterisation. Thus at present there is an apparent disconnect between popular discourse on older people’s identity and how older people view themselves. However with the ‘baby boomers’ we may well see a challenge to this dominant discourse – a generation at the vanguard of social, economic and political change may well resist and challenge the current status quo.
We seem therefore to be living in a uniquely partitioned society, with a dominant system of classification for older people based on their ‘age’. Indeed this argument is equally applicable to young people whose identities are often similarly defined by their age through pejorative descriptions such as ‘yobs’, ‘tearaways’ ‘tyrants’ or ‘hoodies’ to name just a few. Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, a philosopher, economist and a social thinker, posits that such reductive descriptions of identity not only dehumanises the innate richness of individuals, but fosters misunderstanding at best and at worse division and conflict. I am not suggesting the young people of today are going to man the barricades against our older generation or let’s not be discriminatory about this vice versa, but without mutual understanding between generations the impact for community cohesion and harmony could be profound. If younger people for example are continually reduced to the singular identity of a ‘hoody’ this will create an exaggerated fear of younger people for some older people.
Such an essentialist and polarised account of British society can also have potentially damaging consequences for policy-making and policy direction. At a time of limited resources and economic uncertainty there is always the potential for discord, with the interests of one group portrayed to be diametrically opposed to and in direct opposition to those of another. Such tension was in evidence last week at a seminar on the older workforce. There was considerable debate on whether resources should be focused on the NEET generation in terms of back to work initiatives as opposed to older people. The interests of the older generation were thus seen by some in the audience to be in direct competition and competing with younger people. However when the statistics behind the current unemployment figures were ‘unpicked’, it became apparent that it was not so much a question of intergenerational conflict, but rather the skills, training and wider life chances of said individuals, regardless of their age. This experience demonstrates that reductive and singular classifications can foster and encourage tension, the fault lines of the debate should not have been based on age and yet it offered to some attendees a credible paradigm to consider the issue of work from. Perhaps the point is as Makonnen suggested that differences are not important in themselves, but rather it is the significance we attach to them.