For the positives’ column, this is an often impressive if occasionally overwhelming dam-burst of stats-n-surveys about the business of ageing in the UK.
But here the first problem lies already. Given the abundant literature already on the shelves across the Western world – the whole agequake/ageshift idiom being as old as the internet – there is little, at its best, really new here.
But to give her story a positional edge, Dr. Dixon has to insist that we all still fail to grasp the scale of age-driven change and indeed want to blame old people themselves for the problems of the day. The result is a grim parade of Straw Men and Aunt Sallies, hyperbolised pseudo-proofs of just how much myopia and incompetence reside inside (yes, inevitably) “the media”, advertisements, jokes and colloquialisms, public policy in general. As we face the new longevity, then “why do we all have our heads so firmly buried in the sand?”, she asks without any apparent self-awareness at all – adding later that so much cultural negativism towards the greys has meant that “most of us are in denial” (are we?). She wants to tell us all that other books about ageing “fail to convey”. Meanwhile, “the prevailing narrative is one which depicts later life as a time of decline and misery” (does it really?) while “technology is either painted as being the answer to all (sic) society’s problems or the cause of them” (who says any such thing?). Yes, let’s all blame “the doom-mongers” (a suspiciously and lazily over-used phrase here); let’s demonise all who are not in this morning’s audience.
Anyways, the product here cannot decide whether it is journalism, polemic or personal anecdotage. But one thing for sure : it is NOT a manifesto, if you take that term to mean a policy programme which strikes clear positions and determinations on the issues of the day. For all the serious knowledge on display, there is the reek of studied evasiveness in the air; no bullets are to be bitten and no third party is to be faced down. Not even Willetts – the ultimate doom-monger of his, er, generation – is to be pinched on the arm.
For as we run through the topics of pensions, savings, employment, health, housing… the reader will lose count of the number of times Dr. D refuses to offer a decisive policy preference. Instead the text degenerates into facile wish-listing.
Such as: “we need to do more at community level” or “we need to undertake a major retrofit of existing housing” or “we need to expand social housing” or “we need to fund it (social care) properly” or “the Government needs to consider…” or “employers and Government will need to increase investment in retraining” or “employers need to ensure…” or “there needs to be a revolution in care-giving” or “what we need is a radical approach (to reduce chronic diseases)”. As to what each relevant agency should actually do, like tomorrow … well, not my job, guv – I am here just to complain about the doom-mongers. What, specifically, about accumulations of wealth among over-65s? Answer : “it seems fair to look at how these assets can be taxed”. Look at?!? Washing your hands and wringing them at the same time – not exactly a heavy policy-making work-out, is it?
It’s not really for the reviewer to say that the section on death (sic) should never have seen the light. But at least it’s almost plucky of Dr. D to throw a shadow over the medic’s “rule of rescue” and to expose what is seen as a frequent “over-treatment of older people” and to argue that “care homes need (sic) to be more like hospices” – though one suspects that many readers will be nauseated. However, soon the tone of bossy equivocation returns : “it is vital that we have a full and open debate about whether as a society we want to legalise assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia”.
Hang on, this is meant to be a manifesto, a leadership meme and memo. So when should this debate end? What should progressive people now conclude? What should we directly tell our MPs to do?
Or should we just run another programme of provincial workshops – while keeping off the hook for as long as we can?
In the business of growing old, there is a lot that just stinks. Ageing well needs a good deal of personal discipline and drive – rather than the ersatz contentment of glorified victimhood. Like Leonard sings, millions ache in the places where they used to play and the same people know that it is nonsensical to say things like “ability to work has little to do with our age”.
The nonagenarian water will never be really lovely, no matter how deep we dive. The Age of Ageing Better? meanwhile wants to scoop grey life into one big apparently never-ending Fabian seminar – when it should be talking about sex, dating, fun, loss, renewal, escapism, appearance-management, financial ruthlessness, revenge, accomplishment, dependency-minimisation, entrepreneurialism, hard choices. For if only 10% of over-65s are in paid employment, should so many still be congratulated for social volunteering – when they really should be starting an SME and paying fresh tax? If older freelancers have trouble getting gigs should they not cut their fees to make themselves competitive? Is equity release really a wise choice for anyone (barely a word about that subject in 300 pages)? No tough answers here.
Dr D’s heart is in a good place. But it is buried under so many banalities and vanities here that you wonder if she ever had an editor. She insists she has set out transformative and “radical” solutions in a book which is “deeply relevant to the future of the UK”. Maybe. Maybe not.