The alienation of older age: the time of older age has come.

I am writing this a few hours after the end of the Global Ageing Conference which has been taking place in Glasgow over the last few days. The event was held under the auspices of Scottish Care, the National Care Forum and the Global Ageing Network. It brought together hundreds of individuals from close to 50 countries to explore issues of aged care and support, ageism, technology, sustainability and so much more. The debates and discussions were lively, and challenging.

Yesterday morning there was a particular focus on human rights and participants were privileged to hear a presentation from Dr Claudia Mahler, the United Nations Special Representative on the Enjoyment of all Human Rights by Older Persons. I was shocked to learn that the role of older person’s rights was so marginal in the world of the United Nations. I had known that age was not mentioned in the UN Declaration of Human Rights now 75 years old. I had also known that there was no distinctive Convention (as there is for disabled persons or children) to protect the rights of older people, but what I did not know was the limited extent of current day priority for older person’s rights. Indeed, Dr Mahler noted that only 0.5% of recommendations from the United Nations directly related to older people. To be frank this is both shocking and appalling given the proportion of older persons in the population of most countries across the world.

The previous day attendees were inspired by a presentation on the challenge of age and the potential of older age by the distinguished thinker and strategist, Prof Sir Geoff Mulgan. I have already referred to Geoff Mulgan’s work in this blog. In his opening remarks Geoff Mulgan spoke about the way in which the city of Glasgow had been transformed over the years since his first contact with it in the 1980s. He suggested that this was evidence of the way that change can happen but perhaps not always overnight or in the short term. In doing so he remarked on hearing the inspiring words of the trade unionist, Jimmy Reid and his speeches. Prof Mulgan’s reference made me look again at the work of Jimmy Reid, not least his famous Rector speech.

Jimmy Reid was a shop steward at the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS), and as such he opposed the proposed withdrawal of subsidies by the then Conservative government. This would have led to the closure of most of the business and the loss of 6,000 of the 8,500 employees. A work-in resulted which was an alternative to the withdrawing of labour during a strike.

Reid was elected as Rector of Glasgow University by the then student body in October 1971 and delivered a famous speech in 1972. It became an overnight success after it was published by the New York Times and is considered one of the greatest of all political speeches. Based as it was on the Marxist idea of alienation. One famous passage lamented the “scrambling for position” in modern society and stated that the “the rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings”.

 

Reid spoke about the way in which the working people of the yards and city ahd been alienated from the political leadership of the time; how the poor had been alienated from the exercising of their rights and that this was a denial of their humanity and equal dignity.

I hesitate to suggest that had Reid been delivering his speech today he might have used the language and framework of human rights to make broadly the same observations. But in truth I do think that there is at present an alienation of older persons from civic and popular society, not just in Scotland but elsewhere.

A survey carried out by Age Scotland and published in the last few days showed that more than two-thirds of older Scots “do not feel valued” by society, evidencing a sharp increase in the number of older people feeling that life has got worse for them. Two-thirds of people over the age of 50 said they don’t feel valued by society, up from 51% in 2021 to 66%, and more than half (56%) felt life in Scotland was getting worse for older people, up from 34% in 2021. These are depressing and alarming statistics and reflect badly on Scottish society and our political leadership.

I think there is validity in saying that older people are increasingly feeling alienated from the society and communities in which they find themselves. The prevalence of ageism and age discrimination, its societal and cultural acceptance and normalising speak to the heart of our current human rights debate.

Those who framed and shaped the original human rights legislations and frameworks emphasised the inherency of dignity as the starting point for a consideration of being human in relationship with others. But how can you feel a sense of dignity or experience worth and value if you are alienated from all that grants those sentiments and feelings to you? How can you hope to be heard and understood if you are denied voice and action? How can you make your presence felt and your needs known, if you are excluded and granted no presence?

That is why I believe that internationally the time has long since come for there to be a United Nations Convention on the Rights of Older Persons, in order for all governments and public or private bodies to be held to account for actions or inaction. That is why I believe that the time has come in Scotland for us all to support the campaign for an Older Person’s Commissioner.

‘The time for older age has come’ was the comment of one of the delegates from India who spoke this week. Alienation only ends when justice and equality regardless of age, class or circumstance sits at the heart of our being in relationship with one another.

 

Donald Macaskill