Tuesday , May 28 2024

Old

Summary:
In a few days time, I’ll be lining up in the 65-69 category for the Mooloolaba Olympic triathlon (1500m swim, 40km cycle, 10km run)[1]. People in this age category are commonly described as “aging”, “older”, “seniors”, “elders” and, worst of all, “elderly” (though this mostly kicks in at 70). The one thing we are never called is “old”. But this is the only term that makes any sense. Everyone is aging, one year at a time, and a toddler is older than a baby. Senior and elder are similarly relative terms. And “elderly” routinely implies “frail” (a lot of old people are frail, but many more are not. What accounts for the near-universal squeamishness that surrounds the term “old”? Apart from the obvious fact that you are a bit closer to death, it’s not that bad being old. Even if not

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In a few days time, I’ll be lining up in the 65-69 category for the Mooloolaba Olympic triathlon (1500m swim, 40km cycle, 10km run)[1]. People in this age category are commonly described as “aging”, “older”, “seniors”, “elders” and, worst of all, “elderly” (though this mostly kicks in at 70). The one thing we are never called is “old”. But this is the only term that makes any sense. Everyone is aging, one year at a time, and a toddler is older than a baby. Senior and elder are similarly relative terms. And “elderly” routinely implies “frail” (a lot of old people are frail, but many more are not.

What accounts for the near-universal squeamishness that surrounds the term “old”? Apart from the obvious fact that you are a bit closer to death, it’s not that bad being old. Even if not everyone can complete a triathlon, most people maintain (self-assessed) good health to age 85 and beyond, In most developed countries, old people can live a reasonably comfortable life without having to work. And on average, that’s reflected in measures of happiness.

Yet, at least in the Anglosphere, old people don’t seem to be happy in political terms. It’s voters over 65 who provide the core support for conservative parties and are most likely to welcome the drift to the far right represented by Trump and his imitators.

The pattern is particularly striking in the UK where the YouGov poll shows the right and far-right leading easily among voters over 65 (37% Tory + 28 % Reform), while gaining essentially no votes from those aged 20-24, where the Tories tie for 5th place with the SNP, behind Labor, Green, Reform and LibDems https://yougov.co.uk/politics/articles/48794-voting-intention-con-20-lab-46-28-29-feb-2024 [2].Presumably that reflects Brexit, a particularly irresponsible piece of nostalgia politics inflicted mostly by the old on the young.

But it’s the same in the US, Canada, Australia and (though mainly among women) New Zealand. While there has always been a tendency for old people to support the political right, it’s more marked now than it has ever been. And as is particularly evident with MAGA, there’s nothing conservative about this kind of politics. Its primary mode is authoritarian Christian nationalism.

In part, I think this reflects the increasing dominance of culture war issues, where views that were dominant 50 or 60 years ago are now considered unacceptable. Old people whose views haven’t changed in many years are likely to support the right on these issues.

I’d be interested in any thoughts on this.

fn1. Not expecting to do well, thanks to the hottest and stickiest summer I can remember, but I plan to finish.
fn2. A poll last year had the Tories on 1 per cent among young voters.

John Quiggin
He is an Australian economist, a Professor and an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland, and a former member of the Board of the Climate Change Authority of the Australian Government.

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