Speaking up for age

We really need more older people around. This thought often occurs to me, but it has jumped into my mind several times recently, prompted by the following current affairs stories:

– Vincent Cable as the victim of ‘ageism’ – he should be Chancellor instead of the inexperienced Osborne. Read Matthew Norman in the Independent.

– George Entwistle (49) getting the job at the Beeb instead of Caroline Thompson (56). There have been comments from the BBC (which I can’t link you to – I think they were in the Times) that Ms Thompson and another candidate were too old because they were already in their fifties, and that as the expected tenure is 7-8 years, they would be too tired to carry on that long. I don’t normally use emoticons on this blog, but :-O

This has been strengthening my overall feeling that too many people in power, and particularly at the top of the main political parties, are too damned young for the job. Becoming Prime Minister in one’s early forties may seem glamorous and dynamic, but we need elder statesmen and -women, of whom there seem to be very few in the inner circles of power. The House of Lords may have its problems, but at least it keeps the likes of Baroness Warnock (currently in her late eighties) in public life.

We seem to have a cult of youth these days – and paradoxically, that’s bad for the young. Someone older and wiser would never have suggested Cameron’s vile idea to remove housing benefit from all those under 25.

I think I’ve written before about the Olympics and its obsession with youth – all the activity surrounding the Olympics has been aimed at the young, and none at the middle-aged or old.

As a musician, I’m used to the extremes. On the one hand, there is the 15-year-old cellist Laura van der Heijden winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year title with an extraordinarily mature performance of Walton’s Cello Concerto –  a performance which we all must feel will mature still further into a thing of even greater beauty and meaning. On the other, the 85-year-old Colin Davis steering Berlioz’s Grand messe des morts through the vaults of St Paul’s Cathedral. But any musician will tell you that it is through learning from those with age and experience that they are able to grow to maturity themselves.

What really a bit odd is that I realise I’ve always thought like this, even when I was rather young myself. I’ve often wondered why youth is so prized. I remember when I was about 23, working with a music director who was obsessed with youth and who went on and on about his dream of an orchestra full of great young players, with the emphasis on the ‘young’. Obviously, great young players have their virtues. I know them very well, through my decades working with the youth music systems in Bedfordshire. But they would be so very much diminished without their constant, mutually rewarding interaction with age and experience.

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Published in: on July 5, 2012 at 11:16  Comments (7)  

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  1. Unanswerably well-said, Lady Eff. Also probably partly the reason that Cameron is so disliked among the Tory grandees who are somewhat sidelined in the political yoof culture.

    Also I so agree that the older generation has sympathy with the young – much like grandparents in the family. The middle-aged must partly always view the young as a burden and a responsibility, and be embroiled in the stupidities and difficulties of the “age ingrat” (circumflex on that first “a”), as well as trying to make the best of it. Older people are perhaps freer to appreciate the good points of teenagers, though all these thoughts suffer from generalisation.

    In the theatre we sit at the feet of our older practitioners – in science they stand on the shoulders of giants – young craftspeople are in awe of the old man’s skill. Perhaps this reality of concrete practice should inform public life.

  2. How beautifully you put it, Rosalind.

  3. While I agree with your general point, I’d say that Cable isn’t the victim of ageism so much of much as the victim of party power politics. What majority party in a coalition would make a member of the minority party Chancellor of the Exchequer? That position is seen, rightly or wrongly, as being the central one, the key to shaping policy in all departments. Similarly, Caroline Thompson is likely to be if anything the victim of sexism rather than ageism – while there have been quite a few DGs older than 56, there has never been a female one. (She might also be a victim of her surname – after all, the BBC has just suffered for years at the hands of Mark Thompson.)

    • All good points Badger, especially re the Chancellorship, but I think there is an issue with Vince Cable being seen as an old codger. I didn’t want to mention sexism in particular but I am sure that is in play – sometimes in reverse as people seem to feel it’s ‘time’ to have a female DG. Obviously it’s only ‘time’ if the right one emerges, and the comments coming out of the BBC did specify age as an issue.

      • They might of course be using age as an excuse to cover sexism – ageism seen as less unacceptable. And I think you’re right that Cable’s age, or perceived age, is used as a means to dismiss/belittle him by his opponents. Such should not be any more acceptable than doing so on the basis of sex, race, etc. But it is. Personally I’m more concerned by the 40-year-olds in charge of all the main parties who seem to have absolutely no experience of life and very little clue on how to deal with things.

  4. It’s called “bottom”. We want to recruit people with gravitas and experience (and “bottom”) to major roles – with the expectation that they they will recognise, respect and nurture youthful talent. I agree with you! Worst here in France is that people have to retire at 65 from public posts including those in the arts, often well before their sell by date.

    • I love the idea of ‘bottom’. I feel I’m only just acquiring it!


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