Normal service resumes

Judi Dench and The QueenNormal service is about to resume – with apologies to anyone who noticed that Christmas has been quiet. In the meantime, here are some links:

First, a piece I wrote for the Daily Telegraph, pegged to the news that nearly a fifth of people in the UK will live to be 100.

Second, a New York Times op-ed article by Susan Jacoby, which touches on the longevity/morbidity debate: will longer lives be lived in good health, or will they mean longer periods of illness? Truth is, we don’t know. The latter is an alarming prospect, yet, especially since Shipman, very few doctors appear willing to debate publicly the limits to their obligations to keep people alive.

Third, an article from The Economist suggesting that happiness begins at the age of 46 – though if you’re Ukrainian, it appears you’ll have to wait until your mid-60s. A look at the burgeoning field of happiness indices, with a bit of speculation as to why happiness seems to grow, or at least return, as people age.

And last but not least, a report card on his generation by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer as the first baby boomers reach 65. This is a much broader take on the effects of the boomers than the usual economic analyses, taking in war, the environment and poverty. Personal, beautifully written, and optimistic.

Advertisements

Purpose Prize winners 2010

Allan Barsema

Allan Barsema

A former homeless alcoholic and a housekeeper are among this year’s winners of The Purpose Prize, a $100,000 award for entrepreneurs over the age of 60.

The five winners, announced today, were selected by a panel of judges chaired by Sherry Lansing, former CEO of Paramount Pictures and the first woman to head a Hollywood studio.

Sherry Lansing

Sherry Lansing

Among them is Allan Barsema, whose alcoholism cost him his marriage, his home and his job, and who lived for a period from a trailer pulled behind his car. With help from his parents, he managed to stop drinking and to re-establish himself in work; and when, 10 years later, a homeless man barged into his construction company, he decided to set up a room for homeless people in his offices. At the end of that year, 2000, his work with the homeless had become so consuming that he devoted himself full-time to his centre, Carpenter’s Place. He settles 300 long-term homeless people in accommodation each year and has set up an innovative online system to coordinate services for the homeless, Community Collaboration, which has been adopted by 140 agencies in five states.

Margaret Gordon

Margaret Gordon

Margaret Gordon started reading environmental magazines in the house she cleaned and began to link pollution from the nearby container port to the one in five children aged between one and five in her home town of West Oakland who were being rushed to the emergency room  with asthma. Her analysis and campaigning has reduced diesel fumes and pollution from West Oakland’s port and she has been appointed by the Mayor to monitor toxic emissions.

Barry Childs

Barry Childs

Barry Childs is a former corporate executive who has set up a project to provide care and schooling for children, mainly orphaned by AIDS, in Tanzania, which has ended up helping whole communities.

Inez Killingsworth

Inez Killingsworth

Inez Killingsworth worked for the Cleveland Board of Education before she started fighting banks that had mis-sold mortgages and were turfing people out of their homes, demonstrating to them that they were wrecking whole neighbourhoods as well as individual lives. By fighting foreclosures, she has helped more than 10,000 families keep their homes. She has appeared in front of Congress and become a national spokesperson against shady mortgage practices, and a campaigner against the hefty penalties imposed by banks for missed mortgage payments.

Judith B Van Ginkel is a professor of paediatrics who, at the age of 60, created a home visits programme for first-time mothers at risk, half of whom were clinically depressed, and two-thirds of whom had witnessed violence or been victims of violence. Mothers in the programme are visited from the time when they first discover they are pregnant to when their children are aged three and can access help with health concerns, literacy, parenting and education.

Judith B Van Ginkel

Judith B Van Ginkel

So, five people with very different backgrounds, but a common desire to achieve something for others in the later part of their lives. You can see short films about all the $100,000 winners here; and there is more information, including about the five more $50,000 winners here. Oh, and please, Europe needs a Purpose Prize, too.

Older and wiser?

obama-hope

But not if you're over 55?

A couple of items of news pose the intriguing question of what impact an older population will have on politics. To take the more trivial first, research in the UK suggests that over-55s are blocking the development of wind power, consistently leading campaigns against wind turbines that would benefit future generations. On a rather more serious scale, Republican success in the US midterm elections is being widely attributed to the voting patterns of an older electorate.

In the past, there has been quite a lot of hopeful propagandizing for the view that the radicals of the 1960s will turn into the public-spirited utopians of the 21st century. Theodore Roszak, once the chronicler of the counter culture, speculated in his recent book, The Making of An Elder Culture, that upcoming generations of older people would be like no others we’ve seen.

‘The old are not a good audience for a dog-eat-dog social ethic,’ he wrote. ‘If anything, they create an ambience which favours the survival of the gentlest.’

Yet the ambience of the midterm elections was overwhelmingly angry. The tea party movement is the outgrowth of that anger and, according to Ed Pilkington of the Guardian, who spent much of the campaign on the Tea Party Express bus, the average age of those attending its rallies was over 50, with pensioners particularly visible.

In Florida, where 35% of voters are aged 65+ (compared to 23% across the nation) Marco Rubio was the tea party’s most prominent success. The 65+ vote across the United States went Republican by a 20 point margin. Not so much for liberals to cheer about there, then.

The British writer Fred Pearce has speculated that rather less testosterone in world affairs could turn out to be a very good thing and that the ageing population may bring about ‘a permanent end to patriarchy,’ given that it will probably be dominated by women. Anyone who assumes that this will mean a less confrontational, more empathetic and environmentally conscious group of elders should look at the research published in the last couple of days, which suggests that only six out of 10 over-55s support the development of wind farms, compared to 86% of 16-34-year olds and 100% of under-24s.

So will the very large group of older people associated with the ageing population be more idealistic than the old have ever been before? Or will they carry into old age qualities that owe more to those other babyboomer features, self-centredness and a sense of entitlement?

After Tuesday’s elections, the ambitions of those who believed, with Theodore Roszak, that ‘free-market economics and the elder culture are not a good fit,’ must feel rather shakier. The hopefulness that characterised the presidential elections in 2008 has evaporated. Apart from anger, the defining attitude of the electorate as expressed to exit pollsters was pessimism.

Come to our ‘what is the point of retirement?’ event

retire

Here is the invitation to Agebomb’s NESTA event on October 5th. Please do sign up!

Innovation for a New Old Age

What is the future of retirement?  68% of Britons now expect to work past retirement age while one in 10 believe they will never be able to afford to give up work.  As the default retirement age is abolished, and the state pension age recedes, what are the implications for graduates who can’t get jobs?  What does the future hold for people now in their forties, fifties and sixties?

NESTA and Agebomb will be considering these questions on Tuesday 5th October.  We will be joined by Marc Freedman, the San Francisco-based author of Prime Time and Encore and campaigner for socially useful, demanding work for people in the second half of life.  One of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs, Marc founded the Experience Corps in the US, and the Purpose Prize, which awards prizes to entrepreneurs over the age of 60.  His new book Shift looks at how baby boomers need to change to make their lives productive, happy and fulfilling.

Baroness Julia Neuberger will give a campaigning baby boomer’s perspective.  Charlie Leadbeater – NESTA fellow and a leading thinker on social innovation, Geraldine Bedell – journalist and founder of the Agebomb website – and Caroline Waters – BT and Chair for NESTA’s work on ageing will also be speaking.

For the last year, NESTA has been running an extensive programme devoted to innovation in ageing, working with individuals and organisations across England and Scotland.  Please join us for a stimulating debate about whether the second half of life can be an opportunity to extend working lives, even give something back.

To register for this event, please click here Date: Tuesday, 5th October
Time: 09:00 – 10:45 (registration and breakfast will open at 08:30 with presentations starting at 09:00) 
Venue: NESTA, 1 Plough Place, London, EC4A 1DE

If not for old people, we wouldn’t have society at all, says Minister

house

Stolen property?

Last night I went to see David Willetts speak about his book The Pinch and the ideas behind it, courtesy of Policy Exchange. Willetts is always an interesting politician – thoughtful rather than ideological, and exhibiting a fascination with the detail of demographics that is both impressive and slightly exhausting.

The evening really came alive during the questions, which were of a rather erudite standard. Perhaps the most interesting thing Willetts said came right at the very end, when he speculated that if human beings were born adult and died in their prime, most of the institutions that make us human and hold us together would not exist.

It is our vulnerability, including the vulnerability of the old, that means there must be such a thing as society. For the new Minister for Universities, the need for different generations to understand, respect, and play fairly by one another isn’t just a question of the transfer of assets; it’s a moral question.

For Conservatives, who are often understood to resist the idea of a state beyond defence and policing, he argued that the idea of needing to transfer resources across generations is what makes sense of and (though he didn’t put it quite like this) justifies the interference of the state.

Additionally, in a modern and diverse society in which traditional conservative appeals – ‘this is the way we do things here’ –  don’t necessarily work, the idea of an intergenerational contract is something we can all buy into. In fact, Willetts went so far as to say that in an agnostic society, it helps people to attach a meaning to their lives that is about more than consuming.

So relationships between the generations matter a lot. What he didn’t resolve – and doesn’t in the book – is how this is best managed. His first questioner pointed out that affluent boomers can expect their children to inherit their houses after having had a very nice time on gap years and drinking lattes and doing peculiar Generation Y jobs that mainly involve sitting in cafes. So perhaps there’s not so much to worry about after all.

Willetts’ argument in The Pinch is that this won’t happen because boomers have mortgaged and remortgaged their houses, riding house price inflation to consume. A lot depends on what happens to house prices of course; but even if the questioner’s prediction turns out to be correct, it will only exacerbate inequality and make social mobility much more difficult. So it’s hardly desirable.

The big unresolved question of the night (as of the book) was how to strike a balance between the perfectly natural desire of parents to do the best by their children and the wider need of society to ensure it bequeaths possibilities and equity to the next generation. Willetts’ analysis is a brave attempt to get beyond class politics, but somehow class – or at least money – will keep rearing its ugly head. Interesting stuff, though.

Agebomb to hold an event with Nesta in early October

Stop Press!Excellent news: the splendid Marc Freedman will be visiting London from San Francisco for two days in early October and has agreed to be the keynote speaker at an Agebomb event on the new old age, to be held in conjunction with Nesta on the morning of Tuesday October 5.

We will be looking at innovation to make the second half of life a success.

Marc spearheaded the creation of the Experience Corps, which gets older people working with schools and other youth organisations across the United States. He is an eloquent campaigner for Encore Careers – serious, socially useful work for people in the second half of life – and the founder of The Purpose Prize, which awards prizes of $100,000 and $50,000 to social innovators over the age of 55.

His new book, Shift, which will be published in January 2011, is about the transition of the boomer generation to a new stage of life.

Charlie Leadbeater, a leading thinker on social innovation, author of We-Think: The Power of Mass Creativity, and occasional guest blogger on Agebomb, is also a confirmed speaker. Other speakers will be unveiled soon.

Through its Age Unlimited programme, Nesta has done a good deal of work on the demands and ambitions of a different kind of older population, and this is will be an opportunity to think about what the second half of life will hold for a generation with entirely different, but very varied, expectations.

We will be asking: what is the point of retirement? Is there any real choice for people in how they spend the second half of their lives? If not, what would make a difference? Could Encore careers work in the UK? Can you change the second half of life without changing the first?

More news soon.

The precious gift economy of caring vs. box-ticking technocrats

tea timeThe funding of care in England and Wales is a Byzantine structure of mysterious entitlements and clawbacks. The new government has wasted little time (rather like its predecessor in 1997) in announcing an investigation into this morass – and, with its Commission on the Funding of Care and Support due to report next summer, it’s expected that campaigning organisations and think tanks and interested parties will be lobbing in their two penn’orth over the next few months.

The right-leaning think-tank Policy Exchange has been the first off the mark, with a report, Careless, whose headline recommendation is that the National Health Service and social care aren’t actually separate entities and should be amalgamated. The report’s authors, Henry Featherstone and Lilly Whitham, point out that the NHS already devotes 4% of its budget to care and is often the provider of last resort.

Careless reportSocial care consumes 40% of the money that local authorities have at their disposal and cuts are widely seen as inevitable. Featherstone and Whitham object that willy nilly, more care costs will creep into the NHS, where funding is ring-fenced. Their proposal to amalgamate the two services is highly political, because either everything would have to be free at the point of use, or there would be some charging. Predictably enough, they are against free social care funded by general taxation and warn the Commission against considering it, although most experts in the field seem to think that’s effectively been ruled out anyway. Policy Exchange argues that charging for aspects of the combined service would merely extend a principle that already exists in the NHS, where some people pay for prescriptions and cancer drugs.

If you could take out the politics, looking at the scope for amalgamation might be a bright idea. But you can’t. The opposition would rightly deride the idea as a Trojan horse for the dismantling of the NHS. And the coalition has staked its morality on defending a talismanic NHS, exempting it from the general slash and burn; to go back on that would be to lose all credibility.

Featherstone and Whitham’s second controversial proposition is that the anticipated hike in social care budgets may not actually arise. The Department of Health and the Office of National Statistics have taken the view that an ageing population will be an infirm population; that healthy life expectancy – the number of years we spend being fit and well – is decreasing as a proportion of total life expectancy. But the figures are far from clear. Most serious researchers are cautious about the reliability of the evidence and caution that results vary across population groups.

There is highly respectable research suggesting that the length of time spent unwell is not growing, and some equally serious studies showing it is. Policy Exchange’s scepticism is particularly interesting in the light of reports this week of a new superbug, leading to press speculation that we could be heading towards an era without antibiotics when pneumonia may once again become ‘the old man’s friend.’

Policy Exchange claims this lack of clarity means there’s less urgency to reform social care than everyone has assumed, but this is a bit feeble because there are anomalies and inequalities now that would hardly be tolerated in other aspects of government. Besides, as a general principle, there is nothing wrong with planning for the worst.

The care system only gets away with its discrepancies and injustices because it’s something we don’t want to think about. The third really interesting point in the Policy Exchange report (which isn’t new, but bears repeating) is how much ignorance there is about the care system. Many people (48% responding to government research) think care is free, and don’t bother to inquire too closely because no one wants to think about it, in the same way we don’t want to think about death.

Despite a 1997 Royal Commission, two reports from House of Commons Select Committee inquiries, three major reports from the last government and the coalition’s speed in setting up its commission, care doesn’t appear on lists of voters’ concerns.

Unless you happen to be a carer, of course. Carers provide services estimated to be worth £87bn a year. This is not paid work and it’s not exactly volunteering; it’s something much more precious and intangible – you might call it love, or friendship. Over a very long time, governments have exploited the fact that caring comes from somewhere quite different from the technocratic workings of government with its tick-box targets and effectiveness measures. The real conundrum in this debate is how to reward carers.

Successive governments have resisted moves in that direction, for fear that it’s a slippery slope: you could never satisfy their needs. The alternative has been, and remains, to do nothing, which is simply not fair. Amalgamating the NHS and the care service is a slick idea, but it’s a technocratic solution, of appeal mainly to people who are interested in systems. A much bigger and more radical challenge is to find a way of integrating the precious gift economy of caring more closely into society, rather than, as so often, isolating and excluding it.