Earlier this week, here at John Adam Street, I helped facilitate a seminar sponsored by Hanover Housing on the topic of responses to societal ageing. The housing group commissioned nine think tanks to write essays looking at different aspects of the topic . Included was the RSA with a provocative paper on age and attitudes entitled ‘sex, skydiving and tattoos’ .
After listening to our own Steve Broome and also Baroness Sally Greengross from the International Longevity Centre UK and Andrew Harrop from the Fabian Society, I offered some broad reflections of my own.
The grey dog barks but doesn’t bite:
Population ageing is arguably the biggest rapid demographic shift to occur in modern human history. You would have thought it would lead to massive changes in attitudes, expectations and practices. But, as yet, change has been marginal. Casual and institutional ageism is still deep and widespread. With 400,000 old people in residential care in England alone (a form of care surveys show almost none of us want for ourselves), we still accept that a high proportion of older people will lose almost all their independence and dignity as a price of becoming fail. And despite the best endeavours of organisations including the Design Council and NESTA the scale of innovation in institutional redesign and service delivery is also pretty limited given the scale of the challenge. It is a genuinely tragic irony that the group that most needs changes in attitudes and practices is widely caricatured as the most resistant to change.
The struggle for older people’s liberation requires a clearer narrative:
Half the time it seems older people and their champions are challenging negative stereotypes of elder vulnerability while the other half is spent special pleading for pensioners. We need to fasten to the same narrative and it should be something like this: the final third of life can be our best, people are wiser, more rounded and more responsible and they have more free time for themselves and to contribute to society. Indeed, wellbeing surveys show that older people who are healthy and have loved ones near at hand are happier than other age groups. The scandal is that, as a result of ageism, neglect and social inertia, so many older people are denied the opportunities of a great later life.
Give with one hand to take with the other
Liberation struggles involve giving up the condescending privileges that come from second class status in exchange for equality and respect. In the early days of feminism, for example, many women felt threatened by the idea of losing the concessions which resulted from being viewed as the decorative, domestic, weaker sex. Elder liberation means rejecting the special privileges which are the flip side of social stigma and marginalisation. The Government’s proposal to introduce a limit for the care costs shouldered by individuals funded in part through increasing inheritance tax thresholds is a sign of things to come. Given the problems faced by younger generations, there is no ethical or political case for further transfers from young to old. The politics and the economics go together: If we abolished special hand outs and tax breaks for pensioners (excluding the basic state pension), we could massively improve the quality of care and fund a range of programmes to open up new opportunities for older people.
Invest in innovation
The onset of societal ageing has led to some important inventions. Circles of care and the University of the Third Age are two examples. Yet, as a whole, innovation has been marginal. In major policy areas like health and social care, housing, education and employment we need major system change and the invention of a swathe of new institutions, especially those created by and for older people. National and local government should make investment in innovation for ageing a priority with the core aim being to shift the perception and reality of ageing from a social burden to being a civic resource.
In the end society will have to adapt to getting older. The question is whether we do it quickly, positively and creatively or whether millions more people have to suffer being patronised, marginalised and neglected before we get our act together. Older people getting noisier and better organised won’t on its own solve the problems but it is a vital, and currently absent, driver of change
I have two reminders this week of the fractal nature of my three powers theory (adapted from ‘cultural theory’ which itself based on the work of Mary Douglas).
First Catherine Alexander emails me from the anthropology department at UCLA to point out the parallel between the three major forms of social capital and the hierarchical, individualistic, solidaristic typology
“ Linking social capital “connect[s] people across explicit ‘vertical’ power differentials, particularly as it pertains to accessing public and private services… ‘linking’ social capital draws empirical support from a range of studies showing that, especially in poor communities, it is the nature and extent (or lack thereof) of respectful and trusting ties to representatives of formal institutions—e.g. bankers, law enforcement officers, social workers, health care providers—that has a major bearing on their welfare.”(Woolcock and Szreter: ‘Health by association? Social capital, social theory, and the political economy of public health’ Journal of Epidemiology, 2004)
“Bridging social capital… comprises relations of respect and mutuality between people who know that they are not alike in some socio-demographic (or social identity) sense (differing by age, ethnic group, class, etc). The precise nature of the social identity boundaries… individuals that are otherwise more or less equal in terms of their status and power [are brought together in horizontal relations], e.g. ethnic traders seeking counterparts in overseas markets, participants in artistic activities, or professionals of different nationalities exchanging business cards at international conferences.”
“Bonding social capital refers to trusting and co-operative relations between members of a network who see themselves as being similar in terms of their shared social identity.” (ibid 5-6) “
Secondly, in discussing local difference while preparing for a keynote I am delivering to the LGA next week, my interlocutor questioned the thesis of my annual lecture: ‘You may argue that in the South East or in England as a whole individualism is dominant while hierarchy is under siege and solidarity attenuated, but that’s not how it feels in the North East’.
There are multiple overlapping units of social action – the individual, the family, the neighbourhood, the organisation, the city, the nation. If the balance of the three powers (or four perspectives if we include fatalism) can be different at every level are we in danger of expounding a theory which manages to be both overly complicated and overly reductive?
This is certainly a potential weakness but I think it can be managed. As long as we know what unit matters in terms of our analysis or prescription we can – while recognising the context of other units – protect ourselves from too much complexity. Having said which, an individual’s assets are very likely to be reflective of social context. For example, in a middle class community it would be substantially easier to address and individual’s lack of linking capital.
Indeed, as this implies, looking at the interaction of different levels may itself be a source of insight. As an hypothesis we can say that each unit of social power will tend to seek to replicate its power balance (or imbalance) in the units alongside and the levels below or above it.
Thus someone with a strong stock of bonding capital but little linking capital is likely to recommend solidaristic rather than hierarchical solutions to neighbourhood problems. By the same token an inherently hierarchical local authority is likely to seek to enhance the linking capital of communities by encouraging people to join committees and elect representatives.
Looking at different levels might also throw light on a distinction between incremental, innovative and disruptive change: the first is change within the parameters of the unit’s power balance (for example a change in the individual bonus system in a bank); the second, is change using a different power mix (for example, encouraging volunteering among a bank’s employees through solidaristic exhortation); the third is change which seeks to change the whole power balance (seeking to increase regulatory supervision and social responsibility among traders in bank).
Thus when we seek to bring change to system we need to explore the fit between the power balance implicit in the change and the context in which it is pursued. Is incremental, innovative or disruptive change necessary? Obviously the closer the change is to the disruptive end of the spectrum the stronger will need to be the argument and alliance for change we can muster and the more our case will need to address issues of risk.
Not sure whether this is helpful but it gives me something to think about over the weekend.
The great American comedian Shelley Berman (here is one of his funniest tropes) once said this:
“The philosopher asks ‘what is the sound on one hand clapping?’. Folks, I know that sound”
Having received only one comment on yesterday’s post, and that in a thoughtful but basically critical form from an RSA colleague, I know how old Shelley felt.
Still I plough on regardless. I concluded yesterday with this:
This may lead us away from two frequently asked questions in stagnant organisations; ‘why don’t we innovate?’ (the one-off change question) and ‘why can’t we change?’ (the systems question) to a rather more subtle one; ‘is the culture of our organisation such that significant one off innovations can precipitate benign system change?’
‘Ah’ I hear you say ‘but what kind of organisational culture facilitates the process whereby one off change leads to system change’.
I don’t know the answer but I like the question
I reflected on my own question and came up with three related answers:
Reflexivity: Organisations are more likely to spot innovation, and the potential (and challenge) this innovation may represent to the wider system in which it emerges, if they are places in which there is the space, capacity and confidence to reflect on what the organisation does, and why and how it does it.
Flexibility: Obviously, organisations are more likely to reap the system change potential of a one-of innovation if the organisation has the kind of adaptability to accomplish such change. But this isn’t just a matter of attitudes. The greater the costs an organisation has sunk in one system for doing things and the more an organisation is functionally fragmented the greater is the likelihood that innovation will be seen as a threat, something to control or simply irrelevant.
Outcome focussed: Innovation often both offers a better way to accomplish the organisation’s goals and a threat to current ways of doing things and the interests which align with those ways. The more single-mindedly an organisation focusses on impact the more that balance will tilt towards the benefits and away from the costs.
Fair and democratic: When the implications of innovations for systems start to emerge an immediate issue will be who might gain and who might lose. An attempt by Government a few years ago to get public sector workers to suggest efficiency measures foundered partly because employees have no incentive to suggest ways in which they or their colleagues might be modernised out of a job. Innovation is more likely to occur and to spread to systems if people in the organisations feel the gains and losses of such change will be fairly and openly allocated rather than simply reinforcing existing power and reward structures.
When I reflect on these criteria in relation to the RSA I would say we are fair to middling on all of them but not yet outstanding at any (and given where I sit my view is likely to be unduly positive).
So there is some stuff here for me to reflect upon even as the howling winds of utter indifference swirl around me.