I was surprised to see Max Hastings disparaging the qualities that older people might bring to high office last week. Sir Max is, at 74, still writing excellent books and columns, and gives entertaining public talks. In this latest piece he described how he’d been discussing the question of age with the historian Margaret MacMillan, who is of a similar vintage to him. She, too, questioned whether someone in their 70s was up to the job of being US president – although Prof MacMillan remains, as Sir Max said, “both fit and razor-sharp”.
It is certainly true that the prospect of the Trump/Biden debates hardly fills the heart with joy. The encounters are unlikely to be especially dynamic, or edifying. But it’s startling if even high-achieving septuagenarian commentators are losing faith in their generation’s ability to function. Ageism is bad enough when perpetrated by the young. It seems a shame to witness a self-inflicted version.
Older people are all too easily overlooked or shunted to the side, and lockdown has made it clearer that they can have special requirements which businesses and public services struggle to deal with. In the past few weeks I have spent quite a lot of time with my father, who will shortly turn 98. It has been painful to see how ill-equipped some organisations are to serve older customers.
For example, his milkman is no longer allowed to accept payment by cheque. The company, Milk & More, is the largest of its kind in the country, and cited the cost savings of moving payments online, in spite of objections from the National Pensioners Convention.
Changing the payment method has involved two frustrating and ultimately futile phone calls – have you noticed that every single call centre is permanently experiencing a higher than usual volume of calls at the moment? – and a fraught battle with an unyielding and labyrinthine website. We got there in the end, although the milk of human kindness played no part in the process.
Then there was the battle with the bank, also related to a problem with a cheque. The well-meaning person in the call centre fired security questions at my dad at an unforgiving pace, and when he overheard my timid attempt to clarify something butted in with a loud cry of “I’m not allowed to accept prompts!” It was like a mash-up of Carry On and Kafka.
Look, I wanted to say, do you know that this man helped develop the infant heel prick test at the Fountain hospital in Tooting, south London, in the 1950s, and was the co-author of an important book on inborn errors in the metabolism? (Quite what the Nobel prize committee has been playing at all these years overlooking all this is a question for another article.) But I didn’t say any of that of course. I handed the phone back, and hoped for the best.
Why are so many in such a rush to jettison older people, and the old ways of doing things? New does not always mean better. Efficiency dictates that processes must be simplified, with the work that businesses used to do being outsourced to us, the (supposed) customers. But in that slack and inefficiency we have lost there was space where human beings could breathe and operate happily, and well. Yes, the upfront costs of working in that way may have been a bit higher. But how much better were the outcomes?
The death toll in care homes over the past few months has been an appalling manifestation of our neglect, perhaps even contempt, for older people. This is no country for old men, or women. Dominic Cummings has denied that he ever espoused the view attributed to him – that the government’s initial strategy towards Covid-19 involved “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”.
As Chrissie Hynde sings in the Pretenders’ song Hymn to Her: “Some things change, some stay the same”. I’m all for modernity, the good bits, anyway. I’m a big fan of the young. They know a lot more than I did at their age.
But I hope one lesson we may learn from this current crisis is that experience and sober judgment count, and that paying heed to our older fellow citizens will pay dividends. They know things too.
The alternative – a constant lurching after the latest fashionable or semi-formed idea, an inability to respect and preserve the valuable legacy of previous generations – seems utterly unattractive, and dangerous, too. But then, what do I know? I’m only 52. A kid.
• Stefan Stern is co-author of Myths of Management and the former director of the High Pay Centre