Casual Ageism on the Left

Not again. Once more at a positive leftist event filled with a wonderfully diverse range of people – male, female, different nationalities and ethnicities, young and old – I was confronted by rhetoric that denigrates the older generations. Now I am not talking about aggressive ageism or direct insults; I’m talking about casual comments that dismissed older people and explicitly stated that younger people are preferential to the progressive cause.

This article isn’t about Left Vs. Right or Labour Vs. Conservative, and who treats older people better, it is an inward critique of the left, a group I feel myself to be a part. A group with the most radical, ambitious and worthwhile cause imaginable: equality. My evidence may only be anecdotal but I have seen a pattern, in both events and PR materials. If there is casual ageism on the left, it needs to be addressed.

Hatty (Co-Founder of The Blind Spot; in her 70s) and I regularly attend leftist events in London. Be it Unite, Labour, Momentum, or talks or conferences with a left political persuasion, we’ve been to many. In fact, as I wrote in The Blind Spot Welcome article, the motivation for this site derives from one such event and our frustrations with it. The latest experience to which I refer was at Corbynomics 2.3: The Debt Economy, presented by BrickLaneDebates, Momentum & Red Pepper. This event was one of a five-part series and The Blind Spot will be writing up an article on these sessions which aim to cut through the jargon, demystify economics and explore what policies Corbyn could introduce. Overall the event was informative and inspiring, and I would recommend future events to everyone as we are all affected by the economics of the world. Relying on the mainstream media for insight into what has and is going wrong, and especially what can be done about it, is limiting to say the least.

The central speaker of the Corbynomics event, Neil Faulkner (author of A Marxist History of the World), closed with a rallying call to attendees; veering off to talk about mass movements and how we will need to work together to bring about change to a broken economic system. All well and good – yet what was flabbergasting to hear was his focus was purely on the young. This was not nuanced dialogue, the point was clear: young people were all that mattered for change. He reasoned that every mass movement in history was driven by young people.

Before addressing the appropriateness of such comments to a room containing many older people, it’s pertinent to point out that Neil’s reasoning is incorrect. Every mass movement in history was not driven by young people. Some might have been, but all? No. The Civil Rights Movement, The Suffragettes, The Abolitionists, The Anti-Apartheid Movement – all had a mixture of ages within them, young and old, with leaders regularly middle age or over. And that’s not even taking into account the lower life expectancy of the past, which skews the ages younger when compared to today. One mass movement driven completely by older people was The Townsend Movement in the US in the 1930s, campaigning for a universal public pension. Neil’s claim does not stand up.

There is strong evidence to show older people are less progressive, however. There was an article in The Guardian titled Do we really become more conservative with age?, which put the case forward that we do. Statistically older people are less inclined to join mass movements for change. Young people, unencumbered by years of failure, betrayal and disappointment connected to progressive causes, and with less to lose (wealth, property, family, career), are more liberal. To a large extent naivety and ignorance are helpful in this regard: to not listen to the establishment, the naysayers and older, disillusioned liberals, and to believe change is possible. The younger generations involvement is essential as they will be the ones acting out change in the future, passing on their accrued wisdom to their children and the subsequent generations.

That said, it’s one thing to call for greater participation of the young, it’s quite another to use language that’s divisive and exclusionary towards older people. While Neil was self-deprecating and good humoured in his speech, including himself as a person of age, his closing comments were misjudged and ultimately anathema to the progressive cause. Being in her 70s (and as a person with disabilities), Hatty is regularly confronted by disparaging views that prevent her from contributing – which is an almighty loss. She was understandably angry at the end of the Corbynomics event, and that became our main point of conversation afterwards rather than economics.

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It’s not just leftist events that skew young, publicity materials like this regularity exclude older people.

What is strange about this youth-driven message spouted by some on the left is that it’s not being initiated by young people themselves. It’s coming from people who are middle-age and older. Young people have demonstrated through their support of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the US that age is no obstacle. Authenticity, integrity and an inclusive message is what is vital to them.

The progressive movement should be about advancing the best of our culture, not the worse – and ageism and the pursuit of eternal youth is one of the worst. Isn’t it more progressive to embrace all, and not single out groups as better or more essential? Isn’t it more practical to draw on the skills and knowledge from people of all ages to further an egalitarian cause? Older people are not an optional extra to the progressive cause, they are an essential component. They have so much to offer, be it wisdom, experience or simply by telling their own stories. Time lived cannot be manufactured.

The issue of ageism is one I am deeply passionate about, as are many who have contributed to The Blind Spot. It is a topic we will likely revisit with frequency in the future. In the meantime, what are your thoughts? Have you witnessed ageism on the left? Have you seen the opposite? I’m fascinated to know what other people have experienced. If you have a story, please tell.

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