The book which is taking up a lot of my attention at the moment – Age-Friendly Cities and Communities in International Comparison – has a sub-title – Political Lessons, Scientific Avenues, and Democratic Issues. In the chapter contributed by Alan Walker, of the University of Manchester, he looks at how the view of ageing and older people has changed over the decades in the eyes of policy makers. He concentrates especially on Europe, but there is some relevance to New Zealand.
In what Walker calls the ‘golden age’ of welfare state construction following Second World War there were both positive and negative outcomes for older people. On the one hand government income support raised their living standards. There had been high levels of poverty in old age in most European countries in the 1950s and 1960s (one in three older people in the UK were classified as poor and one in five in Germany). But, on the other hand, older people became dependent in economic terms and this encouraged ageist stereotypes of old age as a period of poverty and frailty. To some extent this view of older people as passive recipients of pensions, albeit deserving ones, lingers, although it is now the label “greedy oldies” often creeps in. Walker maintains that institutional ageism and a negative social construction of old age remains.
All welfare states originated, to some extent, in provision for old age and public pension systems. New Zealand was an early starter. A means-tested pension for people 65 years and older was introduced in 1898. A universal (not means-tested) superannuation from age 65 came in with the 1938 Social Security Act, which also lowered the age for the means-tested pension to 60. Retirement Income support now is the largest item of national social expenditures.
When there was compulsory retirement at the age of eligibility for pensions, the expectation was that older people would leave the labour force, exchange wages for pensions and disengage themselves from formal economic activity. So, suggests Walker, retirement operated as a process of social exclusion. This exclusion contributed to a popular perception of older people were politically, as well as economically, inactive. Age stereotypes, that portrayed older people as passive, acquiescent, and disinterested in social and political participation, were encouraged. At that time, however, there were fewer older people and they were less healthy than now.
Things began to change in the 1970s. Policy makers began to reject the welfare state consensus and to question the cost of population ageing, which was becoming clearer. Then, in the 1980s, came the rise of neoliberalism and more criticism of public welfare. Worries about the costs of pensions and long term care emerged. Rising affluence was bringing down the age of retirement and many countries had early retirement policies. Neoliberal deflationary measures had led to unemployment and there was a (vain) hope that the places of retiring workers would be taken by the young unemployed whose numbers were growing rapidly. What happened was not job substitution but job destruction, given the costs of early retirement schemes. A ‘burden of ageing’ and ‘ageing crisis’ discourse developed among policy-makers and in many countries there were reductions in retirement income support. Much of the recent history of superannuation in New Zealand has been attempts to cut back on Muldoon’s generous National Superannuation of the late 1970s.
But something else was developing. Social movements of the 1970s – human rights, feminism, Maori sovereignty – involved older people. Better welfare services meant that people were not only surviving longer but, doing so in better health. The negative impacts of the changes in economic and political ideology had a mobilising effect and led to protests against cuts in pensions, health and social services. Policy makers in several countries, including New Zealand, have responded to this by setting up advisory boards on ageing. Non-governmental organizations, like Grey Power and Age Concern, have emerged to advocate for older people.
These new social movements of civil society emphasised human rights, participation and social inclusion and fiercely opposed all forms of age discrimination. As neoliberal “market-driven” policy took over, we saw the emergence of the ‘older consumer’ and the ‘silver economy’. Older people who are more affluent than their forebears, are asserting themselves as consumers and as active participants in many spheres of life. “Active ageing” has become the theme and has become part of policy. The thinking behind this new approach is expressed perfectly in the WHO dictum “years have been added to life now we must add life to years”. This is a long way from the perception of older people as deserving, but poor and dependent. But have we got rid of age discrimination?
 Walker, A. (2016) Population Ageing from a Global and Theoretical Perspective: European Lessons on Active Ageing. p. 47-64 in Moulaert, T. and Garon, S. (Editors)(2016) Age-Friendly Cities and Communities in ternational Comparison Political Lessons, Scientific Avenues, and Democratic Issues. Springer International Publishing Switzerland.