Old People: (and the politics of) ‘Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be’

Old people are routinely mocked as being backwards-looking, racist, chauvinistic, homophobic and staunchly conservative. But legitimate grievances are papered over by society’s blanket derision.

The other day, we were at one of those carvery pubs that sprinkle country A-roads, luring in meandering Sunday drivers with the smell of hog flesh and gravy. The paving slabs of pork and beef and lamb the chef sawed off Land Rover-sized carcasses smelt and tasted gorgeous if you could get over the eye-watering excess of it all. That said, having been horrifically scalded by a molten-hot veggie burger bought on Portreath sea front the day before (a rubbish attempt at being a bit sustainable), we weren’t in the best condition to chew through a door-step of pig meat. Still, with Pride of Britain-grade grit and dignity, we heroically nibbled on, trying to focus on something other than the pain where the roof of our mouth used to be.

Luckily, there was a group of old people loudly bemoaning the state of modern civilisation on the next table over. Being in the business of loudly bemoaning the state of modern civilisation ourselves, these scenarios always make for interesting eavesdropping.

What was striking, as ever, was the depth and subtlety of their criticism. If you actually take the time to listen to what old people are saying, rather than just assuming they want hanging brought back and all the brown people sent back home, you’ll often find their critiques to be a lot less one-dimensional than you’ve been taught to expect.

Almost invariably, something cringe-worthy will pop up at one stage or another – here it was matter-of-fact slurs against the irredeemably ‘lazy’ Greeks and Italians (even as they moan about the slow death of the work-life balance, British people never seem to conclude that it’s us who are working too hard, not other parts of the world that don’t work enough). But if you peel off the ingrained prejudices and the stuff they’ve got from the Daily Express, what you’re often left with is some quite sophisticated insights into how politics and economics have changed over the past century.

This particular gang of pubbing pensioners were lamenting the gradual but unmistakable shift in economic priorities they’d seen during their lifetimes. Together, between mouthfuls of farmyard animal, they pieced together an economic narrative of the last fifty years or so. Once, private companies planned, they said. Corporations always had one eye on the future, and spent their money wisely to prepare for it – ‘British firms used to invest!’ as one of the ladies exasperatedly put it. They tried to balance making good, robust products and providing high quality services with the need to make profit. They had more of an attachment to the societies they operated within, had respect for their workers and paid their taxes.

Now, the oldies’ line of argument continued, things have drastically changed. Companies are short-termist in the extreme. Their horizons have shrunk. Executives now don’t look much further beyond next year’s AGM. They cut costs and corners wherever possible, and squeeze as much profit-making potential out of every worker, regardless of their wellbeing. The old-style symbiotic relationship between big firms and the people that worked for them is long gone. Profit is everything, now, and dodging tax is just a way of getting more of it.

You can debate whether theirs was an over-rosy account of the past. Did the capitalists of the ‘40s and ‘50s really all pay their taxes out of social solidarity? Or because it was much harder to dodge than it is in today’s globalised world? Did they really all care about and respect their workers? Or did far beefier unions and more stringent government regulation mean they had to treat them with a minimum of decency? And even thirty-odd years in to the blankly amoral neoliberal dystopia, is it fair to make the sweeping generalisation that all modern bosses don’t give a damn about the people that work for them? Probably not, on all counts. But that doesn’t detract from their generally spot on account of changing trends in the capitalist economy between the ‘70s and now.

Still, after a fruitful few minutes or so of us dropping eaves in their general direction, their startling burst of clarity halted abruptly, and they veered off into complaining about Polish people. It was nice while it lasted.

Old People Got The (Prosperity) Hump

‘Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be’. It’s become an Old People cliché, just as it’s become a young, hip metropolitan-kinda-guy cliché to immediately dismiss that sentiment as something stuck in the past Old People have always said.

In 1960, English variety performer Max Bygraves brought out a song with the same name, in which he humorously lamented the decline of the world his generation had been brought up in, and the rise of a strange, scary, alienating new one, filled with ‘Teds with drainpipe trousers’ and ‘bowling alleys’ and monkey astronauts. It’s fun to listen back to in 2014 and hear someone whinging about thrusting new kid on the block Elvis Presley now he’s an untouchable pop cultural deity.

So have Old People always moaned about the modern world and loudly reminisced about the good old days? Probably. But that doesn’t mean that their criticisms of the present day aren’t valid and insightful. Yes, some, or even quite a lot of that dislike of modernity might just boil down to things being ‘different’ or ‘new’. It might constitute a grouchy opposition to social change a lot of us would see as hugely positive, in fact – increased acceptance of ethnic minorities, gay people, disabled people, unmarried couples, single parents and the like.

But rummage through the prejudices and the knee-jerk anti-modernism and you’ll find some sparkling insights, too – including ones into what’s gone so awry in the society they’ve watched change with staggering speed during their lifetimes.

Today’s pensioners have lived through a kind of socioeconomic Grand Old Duke of York scenario, collectively marched to the top of prosperity hill and marched right down again. They’ve seen living standards and general wellbeing steadily improve, peak, and then decline. The country they were born in was filled with poverty and hardship. In the 1920s and 1930s, deprivation was widespread, inequality was grotesque, and the Great Depression made life miserable for millions. Then things got better. Remarkably, despite six years of all-out conflict, Britain managed to stagger out of the Second World War as a better place. Social solidarity and community-spiritedness were at an all-time high. And in the years that followed, the political consensus changed to reflect this shift in social attitudes.

It was the Labour government of ’45-‘51, probably the best (or least worst) the country’s had in its history, that made the most crucial contributions. The NHS, the welfare state, millions of council houses and the nationalisation of a significant chunk of the economy finally, belatedly set the UK off in a more humane, compassionate and egalitarian direction. But really, Labour was just building on the pragmatic interventionist policies enacted during the war – with the nation imperilled, even the Churchillian Tories that dominated the War Cabinet had been willing to introduce price controls, keeping crucial goods and services affordable, and restrict the flow of capital in and out of the country.

The result wasn’t radical. It was a consensus, a compromise, between the interests of the rich and influential and the wellbeing of the majority. Labour could’ve and should’ve gone further – been bolder and more ambitiously egalitarian in its attempts to tackle private power and enshrine the common good at the highest priority of politics and economics. If it did, the new arrangement might’ve lasted. As it happened, it didn’t – but for a few decades, life for ordinary people was still far better than it ever had been before.                      

Over the next thirty years, things were very far from perfect. But both major parties committed themselves to full employment. Both maintained the welfare state, and a mixed economy of privately and publically-owned enterprises. Jobs were about as secure, as plentiful, and as generously rewarded as they ever had been. The gap between the richest and poorest shrunk considerably – the income of the wealthiest 1% nearly halved between 1935 and 1979, and living standards for the majority gradually improved.

And then things got worse again. Having witnessed the nation haul itself out of the mire, today’s pensioners watched those gains ripped away. The upward trend of the post-war years was dramatically reversed. Since the 1970s, working people have been left struggling with stagnant or falling wages, skyrocketing living costs and house prices, soaring unemployment, the traumatising destruction of British industry and the consequent decline in numbers of well-paid, skilled, secure jobs. Society has fractured, communities have withered away, and individuals have become more atomised and individualistic. Social mobility has been greatly reduced, levels of happiness and mental wellbeing have fallen off a cliff, and economic inequality has swollen grotesquely, with poverty and the wealth of the richest ballooning at either end of a starkly polarised social spectrum.

Yes, people were materially poorer in the past – they had less ‘things’, no computers, fewer cars, and had to endure tin baths and outside toilets. But it was also possible for one wage-earner to support an entire family. The state intervened to ensure that housing was affordable for all. Public-owned utilities provided energy and water relatively cheaply. Whinging about British Rail had become a national sport by the time it was sold off, but nationalised public transport was much cheaper, both to use and to run, than the investment-slashing, fare-hiking, profit-maximising regime introduced by private providers.

But just as they were watching living standards begin to slide, today’s elderly witnessed another, separate trend – one that gradually brought about a far more tolerant, accepting society. Now, people are less likely to get married than they once were. Those that do are far more likely to get divorced. Church of England Christianity has declined as a national force. Extensive immigration has turned Britain into a multicultural society, and its panoply of ethnic minorities are now a broadly accepted part of day-to-day life. In cities across the country, people from all different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds manage to peacefully coexist. Gay people, transgender people, and people who choose to define their sexuality in other ways are gaining increasing acceptance.

For most young people, this has been overwhelmingly positive. Many elderly people, by contrast, are yet to be convinced. Old prejudices die hard. But something’s made them significantly harder for the elderly to let go of, we think – the fact that these two entirely separate trends, falling living standards and increased tolerance, acceptance and social diversity, get lumped together and treated as if they’re connected. There’s hardly ever any attempt to explain precisely why immigrants, gay people and single mothers are to blame for society going to the dogs. Instead, there’s an unfortunate tendency for elderly people to harbour a fuzzy, ill-considered dislike for them purely on the basis that they’re ‘new’ and different, the product of a world that OAPs feel increasingly scared by and alienated from.

It’s an irrational attitude that the Daily Mail, the Murdoch press, the Tory Party and all the other principal beneficiaries of the great slide in living standards are very happy to keep stoking. Old people have been around long enough to know that balls-to-the-wall neoliberalism isn’t the only game in town. So, if you’re a member of an unscrupulously self-serving elite, it’s very convenient if their opinions are written off as bigoted and irrelevant, their keen insights into what’s gone wrong rubbished along with the duly dismissed ignorant prejudices and ethnic slurs. And if old people themselves – the demographic that most reliably turns out to vote every five years – blame vulnerable minorities for the country’s predicament rather than people at the top, even better.

In short, politically and economically, things aren’t what they used to be. Socially, we’ve seen stupendous improvement. Blaming the former on the latter is a rut that, sadly, it’s probably too late to pull a lot of older people out of. But people have got greedier, more individualistic, more selfish. Products are shoddier, we do spend our money on things we don’t need and waste far, far too much. People are less respectful and kind to one another, community life has got worse in many parts of the country, and people are sadder, lonelier, more stressed and more anxious. Life is further away from the vastly more social, egalitarian, co-operative way of life that humanity evolved to suit and led for over 90% of its two million year existence than it ever has been.

We can’t go back to the ‘40s. The ‘Golden Age’ of caring capitalism was a fluke, built on the colossal, one-time only economic boom born out of post-war reconstruction and the raft of new technologies that helped the Allies win it. If we want a better life for the vast majority in the twenty first century, and for it to last this time, we’re going to have to be a lot more radical. A lot of Old People might just want to turn the clock back. But if we actually start listening, critically, to what our venerable seniors have to say, and distinguishing between the genuinely insightful and ignorantly prejudicial, we might come out of it with a very good idea of what’s gone wrong with society, and how we can go about fixing it.