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The future of ageing

April 1, 2009 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Social brain 

 Among yesterday’s comments James Horn kindly asked me to elaborate on the top lines of my Resolution Foundation speech about ageing.

I argued that the future for social care looks very grim (a point emphasised this morning on the Today programme by Baroness Young from the new Care Quality Commission).  As well as fighting to protect care budgets in the recession I suggested that the growing debate about how our lives will be different after the economic crisis is an opportunity to confront the unjust and damaging way we tend to think about getting old.

Three findings from research into neuroscience and behavioural science might help, giving us clues as to why we have come to have such unhealthy attitudes and reasons why they could change.

Behavioural economics and social psychology tell us that human beings tend to be bad at making judgements over the long term. This means we don’t prepare for old age (for example, saving far too little for our retirement) and we aren’t very good at empathising with older people even though it is a stage we will sooner or later reach. Avoiding being with old people is a way of avoiding having to recognise it will ever happen to us.

As Dan Gilbert shows in Stumbling on Happiness, we are also bad at predicting how change will affect us. We assume that we will be happy for life if we win the lottery and sad for life if we become disabled. In fact, over a relatively short time most people adjust to even major changes, ending up at the same level of contentment as when their life altered. We tend to think old people are just like us except less fit, less attractive and closer to death and that makes us think of being old entirely negatively. In fact, we will adjust to old age and – as long as other things in our life are OK – we are likely to be more content in our seventies than in our thirties.

We underestimate both the brain’s plasticity and the way we are all affected by the circumstances in which we find ourselves. So we think of old age as a linear process of decline instead of a stage in life through which we continue to develop depending in large part on our decisions and the circumstances in which we place ourselves. Experiments with older people undertaking low level cognitive and behavioural therapy have found major impacts on their sense of well-being.

There are many other reasons why we view ageing so negatively; the youth fetish in fashion and the media, and – as a self fulfilling prophesy – the actual conditions in which many vulnerable older people find themselves left by family and society. Many visitors to this country, especially from Asian cultures, are shocked by our attitudes to older people. Applying Avner Offer’s argument in ‘The Challenge of Affluence’ it may be that cultures with a strong tradition of deference to older people protect us from our predispositions to fear ageing and shun the aged. These traditions act as what Offer calls a ‘commitment device’  but like other traditions and norms they are eroded by affluence. 

A transformation of social attitudes would involve asserting that one of the characteristics of a good society is that it respects its elders. It might also involve recognising that being a good citizen is not just about respect for people of different race, colour or creed but also for people of different generations. Finally, we might see that personal well-being is impossible if we are dreading what lies before us in the final fifth of our lives.  

It can be frustrating to be asked to speak on a topic, to generate some ideas and then not get another chance to air them. Maybe it’s because I’m getting on myself, but I hope I’ll get more opportunities to develop this thinking. It’s certainly a fundamental issue for society.


Obama, Gaza and the virtues of inaction

January 19, 2009 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Credit crunch, Politics, The RSA 

There is an old joke which has a cardinal running into the Pope’s chambers in the Vatican: ‘Holy Father, Jesus Christ has returned, he is walking now into St Mark’s Square’. ‘Quick’ says the Pope ‘Look busy’. 

Despite the deflation of the Brown bounce, Labour strategists still believe their attack on the ‘do nothing’ Conservatives can hit home. Today for example the Conservatives can either support Alastair Darling’s new production, ‘Bank Bailout 2 (this time it’s desperate)’, which looks weak, or they can oppose it which implies they don’t care that businesses can’t borrow and the housing market is as dead as a Norwegian Blue.  Perhaps that’s why there is as yet no comment on the Conservative website.

Whatever the pros and cons of the Conservatives political strategy on the economy, the allegation of doing nothing is damaging. It’s not just that it smacks of laziness and complacency. There may be a cognitive reason too. As Dan Gilbert summarised brilliantly in ‘Stumbling on happiness’, most of us are hard wired to rationalise our past actions. Given that we tend to think that what we did in the past worked for us (regardless of the evidence), and that doing something creates more powerful memories than not, we are prone to think action is better than inaction.    

The world now awaits President Obama’s inaugural address. For months the papers have been full of articles about how the new President handles expectations, the best of which in my opinion was this beautifully written piece by Benjamin Lamm (also check out my ex-insider’s take written a few days after the US election).

From the global economic crisis, to the Middle East, to climate change we hope Obama will sprinkle his magic dust and all will be well. There are certainly some areas where we need decisive early action. Foremost among these is the economy. Labour is hoping to make capital from the apparent similarity of Obama’s strategy to Brown’s, in contrast to the Conservative position.

But on the Middle East there are some important words of caution from Hussein Agha and Robert Malley writing (before the Israeli invasion of Gaza) in the New York Review of Books. Reviewing several books from seasoned veterans of US Middle East policy making and diplomacy, Agha and Malley conclude:

Amid all this, the question of what ought to be done on the Arab–Israeli front remains unanswered, and that may not be a bad thing. With so much that is novel, and with so much having gone so wrong for so long, basic issues should first be addressed. Among them are the reasons for recurring failures, the effectiveness of US mediation, the wisdom and realism of seeking a comprehensive, across-the-board settlement of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, or even the centrality of that conflict to US interests and the benefits that would accrue to America from its resolution. One also might ponder reasons behind America’s chronic ineffectiveness in persuading lesser powers (Arafat, Hamas, Syria, or Hezbollah) to acquiesce in its demands, a pattern that suggests incapacity to identify local political forces, understand their interests, or comprehend their appeal.

Raising such questions might lead to heretical answers, or impractical ones, or none at all. But it is preferable to a headfirst rush to follow costly familiar patterns and to seek the comforting embrace of ideas that have been tried but never worked or that were never tried but can no longer work. Among the flurry of recommendations the next administration will receive, Obama could do worse than consider some simple advice. Don’t rush. Take time, take a deep breath, and take stock. Who knows, fresh and more effective policies might even ensue. Now that would be change we could believe in.”

Solutions to conflicts don’t simply carry over from one place to another. But it is telling to consider some of the lessons of the Northern Ireland peace process (vividly described at the RSA last year by Jonathan Powell). It is futile to negotiate only with moderates regardless of whether they command the support of their communities. It is important to have clear objectives and a willingness to be tough in enforcing the conditions on each side necessary to keep the other side on board. The latter can only be done if the leaders have at least some control over their own communities.

No one knows how the situation in Gaza will settle down in coming weeks, nor the result and impact of the Israeli election. The new President will have to say he is determined to make peace in the Middle East. But he may be well advised to be patient and realistic about the role the US can play in the absence of effective leadership in the region.