Category Archives: Uncategorized

Ageism and the coronavirus crisis. Why an age-based selective lockdown policy is wrong.

I’m not sure this qualifies as a blog perhaps more of a structured rant. But I’m getting increasingly infuriated at the prevalence and justification of ageist attitudes and language around older adults as a consequence of the current coronavirus crisis. This is something that I expected from certain tabloid newspapers or the army of Twitter trolls that are out there. However, when apparently well-educated academics join the fray, I really do despair. The latest example of this, and the straw broke the camel’s back for me, was this blog by two bio/medical ethicists in which they argue that imposing or extending the lockdown policies for those aged 70 and over is not age discrimination.

I want to take issue with a number of their arguments and work through these one by one. Firstly they argue that any age cut off has to be arbitrary:

Now we cannot settle here where exactly the cut-off for “elderly” is. It will have to correlate with the elbow of an exponential curve and be easily enforceable. And any cut-off will have an element of arbitrariness. For the sake of argument, here we will pick 70. The average age of death in Italy from COVID-19 is 78. Those over the age of 70 are much more likely to die and more likely to need hospitalisation (and also much less likely to be employed).

Immediately this exposes a fundamental flaw of their argument that an age cut off point would not be discriminatory. Not all those above the age of 70 contract or die from coronavirus and not all those who contract or die from coronavirus are aged over 70. It is indeed far from clear at present how the association between older age, symptom severity and mortality from coronavirus can be explained. As the UK’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, has said the over-60s have a good chance of surviving if infected and the “great majority” of patients as old as 80 will recover. Indeed there is evidence that those in very late life, e.g. centenarians, have a better chance of recovery than younger adults. Conversely there are children as young as 5 years old who have died from this virus. Hence, underlying health conditions also play a role, regardless of age. For example, there are about five-and-a-half million people in the UK of all ages who have asthma and this increases the risk of severe illness for those who contract coronavirus. So by imposing an arbitrary age cut off at 70 you are not only discriminating against those who are fit and healthy who are over 70, but also those under 70 who are at risk of coronavirus.

Secondly, their argument seems to treat older adults as if they are a separate group divorced from any social or familial ties. The idea that allowing people to go back to work but keeping the over 70s in a state of lockdown will help the economy get back on its feet seriously ignores the fact that a significant proportion of the population rely on the unpaid care provided by grandparents for grandchildren to allow those of working age to return to work. Older adults play a vital part in the life of UK society. As the British Society of Gerontology notes in its statement on the UK plans to isolate those aged 70 and over:

There are currently more than 360,000 people over 70 in paid work, including one in seven men between 70 and 75 and one in sixteen women (see Table 1). Almost one million people over the age of 70 provide unpaid care, including one in seven women in their 70s. One in five people aged between 70 and 85, over 1.5 million people, volunteer in their communities. People in good health are especially likely to volunteer at older ages with almost a third of those in their early 70s doing so. Older adults should not be excluded but should be seen as a vital and necessary part of economic and community life.

Thirdly, the authors argue that because those who are aged 70 or over are statistically at a higher risk of dying that this justifies the policy to keep them in lockdown for an extended period of time:

It is using age like sex [for breast cancer screening] as a basis for a medical decision only because that feature correlates with a robust statistically higher likelihood of getting ill. 

The argument is that this is not discriminatory because it is statistically proven that there is an increased risk. Putting to one side for the moment the point I made earlier that this is not universal but a statistical average relative to other arbitrary age groups I’m surprised that the authors don’t carry the same argument forward for other groups that have an increased risk. For example, the authors argue that increased breast screening for women relative to men is not discriminatory against men because women have a higher chance of getting breast cancer than men. Statistics show that men are much more likely to die from coronavirus than women. By the same logic why aren’t the authors extending their argument that men should remain in extended lockdown because they have an increased risk of mortality from coronavirus? The same applies to people from BAME backgrounds. Statistics from the UK and the US suggest that they are at an increased risk of mortality from coronavirus. Yet the authors do not argue that we should extend the lockdown for members of these communities. So why do they think that it is okay for people to be locked down on the basis of age but not sex or ethnicity?

Moreover, even though this does not form part of their argument, I’m surprised that the writers do not see the connection between a policy of selective lockdown based on age and the perpetuation of wider negative age stereotypes against older adults. Singling out older adults as a group who are frail, at risk of poor health and economically less productive sends broader signals about the value that we place on people in this age group. Whilst I’m generally reluctant to agree with David Blunkett he is right when he says that by introducing this policy based on an age cut off point you are stigmatising older adults purely on the basis of their chronological age. That this conflation between older age and vulnerability is becoming more prevalent is evidenced by the fact that every time I go into my local supermarkets I am told that they are putting on special opening hours for those who are at risk such as the ‘elderly and the vulnerable’. Whilst I do not think that supermarket managers are part of a global ageist conspiracy this sort of ‘common sense’ approach represents the kind of compassionate ageism about which Mervyn Eastman has so eloquently ranted and with which I fully agree (to the point where I feel that members of the wider gerontological community sometimes stray into this dangerous area). At the other end of this spectrum is the much more virulent gerontocidal language being perpetrated on social media through hashtags such as #boomerremover. Not only is this sort discourse eroding the possibility of intergenerational social solidarity when it is needed most, there is now a vast literature that shows that ageism has negative consequences for the health of older adults, healthy life expectancy and health expenditure . So – to quote Donald Trump – the cure should not be worse than the disease. Hence, if selective lockdowns of people based purely on age lead to increased ageism and intergenerational strife, which seems to be the case, then in the long run this will only store up greater and more wide ranging health problems for society which would ultimately undermine any shorter term benefits of the lockdown.

Rant over (for now)…

What do the Paradise Papers tell us about capitalism, globalization and ageing?

On the 5th November the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released a trove of over 13.4 million leaked documents mostly from the offshore law firm Appleby and the Singapore-based international trust and corporate services provider, Asiaciti Trust, along with corporate registries in 19 tax jurisdictions, which reveal the financial dealings and tax avoidance of politicians, celebrities, corporate giants and business leaders. These have been dubbed the Paradise Papers as many, although certainly not all, of the offshore financial companies identified in the documents operate in tropical islands such as the Cook Islands, Cayman Islands and Bermuda. The leaked data covers seven decades, from 1950 to 2016. Although the investigation in the extent of any financial irregularities and tax avoidance is ongoing early revelations show that there is a vast network of such companies and agreements that are used by the global rich to move money around the world.

Alongside any personal or political interest that we might have in this story I would argue that, as gerontologists, each of us should have a professional interest in this issue and what any investigation will eventually show for 2 reasons:

  1. Because they highlight the often-neglected role of capital in the debates on population ageing
  2. Because they expose the fallacy that national governments are helpless in the face of global corporate power

We are continuously being told that, on both an individual and societal level, we cannot afford to grow old in the way that we have done in the past. The argument, crudely put, is that as more and more of us live for longer we draw down on a finite and shrinking pot of public funds. So, on the one hand, we are told that we must reduce public spending on things that matter to many older people like pensions, healthcare and social care, under the guise of austerity politics. Yet on the other hand the Paradise Paper reveal that global corporations and the super-rich are allowed to avoid paying huge sums of money in taxes. As Murray Worthy, Global Witness corruption campaigner, states;

“The Paradise Papers have exposed how some of the world’s most prominent public figures, including The Queen and a key Trump associate, are involved in a global secrecy scandal of offshore accounts and hidden financial dealings. They have laid bare the social damage, undue influence and corruption hard-wired into our financial system, and the failure of governments around the world to tackle the role of tax havens and the white-collar professionals who facilitate such deals.”

These are not insubstantial amounts. It is estimated that between $7.8-$10tn of global GDP is held offshore beyond the reach of tax authorities. This is money that is being taken out of various countries that could be going to pay for essential public services. Moreover, the evidence shows that it is the super-rich who are benefitting from these offshore financial institutions. A report this September, co-authored by the economist Gabriel Zucman, says 80% of all offshore cash is owned by 0.1% of the richest households, with 50% held by the top 0.01%.

_98623374_who_is_hiding_cash_a_640-nc

 

These figures show how these offshore financial companies allow global corporations and the super-rich to take huge sums of taxable income out of the country. This has particular salience to the debates and research on extending working lives. Here we have seen some of the most radical shifts in policy to both cut back on state and occupational pensions pay-outs and get people to remain in work until later in life. We have seen the state pension age rise from 60 to 65 for women which has had a huge impact on many women. From 2019, it will increase for both men and women to 66, then to 66 to 67 between 2026 and 2028 and it is planned to rise to 68 by 2037-2039. At the same time, we have seen a huge shift away from more generous defined benefit (DB) to defined contribution (DC) occupations pensions. Yet in the debates on extending working lives we very rarely, if at all, talk about productivity or, more importantly, profits. For example, if we take the ‘old age dependency ratio’, which is often used to justify the argument that we need to reduce pension spending and work for longer, is based on the simple relation between the number of people in ‘working age’ versus the number of people in ‘pensionable age’. This reduces the old age dependency to one between different classes of workers – capital is conspicuously absent from this equation. Yet, as both Robin Blackburn and Chris Phillipson have shown, capital is heavily engaged in the construction of (the conditions of) work and retirement. On the 100th year anniversary of the Russian Revolution it seem appropriate that we need to bring capital (back) into the debates on ageing and later life.

However, in bringing capital back in to our discussions and analyses we must not make the mistake of assuming that national governments are impotent in the face of these global economic giants. National governments often paint themselves as hapless victims in these new global realities. However, as a number of writers have pointed out, the nation-state is a complicit actor in these developments. As Paul Higgs and I showed in our book on Ageing and Globalization, state agencies, alongside global organisations such as the World Bank, play a key role in shaping these ‘global’ economic landscapes. In fact, when we look at these so-called ‘off-shore’ companies we see that many of them are very much ‘onshore’. Many of the tax havens identified in the Paradise Papers, such as Bermuda and the Isle of Mann, are British Crown Dependencies. The BBC’s Panorama investigation suggests that these changes to the tax laws in the Isle of Mann were approved by politicians and the HMRC. Moreover the City of London acts as the facilitating hub for Crown dependencies and overseas territories that channel trillions of offshore dollars. On the other hand, the EU and UN are pushing for policies to prevent tax avoidance. Ministers at the EU have called for a blacklist of global tax havens backed by sanctions; new transparency rules for tax intermediaries, bankers, and lawyers; and mandatory country-by-country reporting for profits. Indeed, what the Paradise Papers show, and what Paul and I argued, is that rather than being truly global the current world order is made up of a myriad of overlapping geo-political and jurisdictional spaces. The challenge for gerontology is to develop models to examine how the relations between these spaces, ranging from the global to the local, affect and are in turn affected by population ageing.

 

Ageing and Globalization

Sometime last year my parents called me to say that they wouldn’t be able to meet up on the coming weekend as they had to go and look after my brother’s kids. Nothing unusual about this as more and more retirees find themselves called upon to perform grandparenting duties in times of need – in this case my brother had to travel for work and my sister-in-law was not feeling well. What made this somewhat more unusual was that my parents were in France at the time and my brother lives in Australia. So, they duly cut their stay in France short, bought return tickets to Australia, flew back to the UK packed their bags and went out to Australia for 3 weeks (my brother had had to go to China and South Korea).

Unusual but not unique. As families become increasingly transnational, more and more people are drawn into these long-distance family and caring relationships. But this is not limited to family relationships. Wherever we look, from travel and transport to economics and the media, we seem to see evidence of the increasingly globalized nature of social action.

Workers across the world are increasingly believed to be caught up in the global economic flows of trade and investment that encircle the world and bind countries together as part of a global market. Advances in transportation and communications have also appeared to shrink the world around us. Email and video calls make it possible to instantly speak to people thousands of miles away. Satellite television and internet streaming make it possible to watch foreign TV, news or sporting events from your home or even on the move. This movement of images and things is mirrored by the movement of people. Cheap flights have made it possible for many in the high-income countries to explore the world, whilst millions of people are forced to migrate to escape war and poverty throughout other parts of the world. All of which is reconfiguring our notions of social geography.

Globalization and ageing

This series of transformations poses challenges for gerontology as well as for older people themselves. If we assume that notions of time and space are intimately interconnected then the changing nature of space raises many questions about how we see time, and ultimately, how we think about ageing. Yet it is widely acknowledged that there is still relatively little research on the interconnections between globalization and ageing. Redressing this gap is important, not simply because a more integrated approach to globalization is increasingly necessary, but also because the continuing effects of the global economic crisis of 2008 have destabilised many of the assumptions and policies formulated in the twentieth century for old age.

However, we must also be cautious of claims made about the ‘global’ nature of population ageing as well as arguments that globalisation has a uniformly negative impact on older people. Indeed, when we look at the evidence we can draw two conclusions. Firstly, there is no single ‘spatial logic’ of ageing and later life. Rather there are significant historical and future differences in the timing, speed and level of population ageing as well as in the spatial distribution of older populations and the ageing of the older population itself. As figure 1 shows, there is an intersection between economic geography and demography.

hyde-fig-1

So, while it is true that life expectancy is increasing and fertility rates are declining in almost all countries, at present and in the near future, older people only make up a small proportion of the population in many developing countries. The fact that population ageing remains relatively confined to the advanced industrial nations is perhaps the most potent argument against the emergence of a global time-space for later life. Rather, the economic, political and cultural co-ordinates of later life are located in a series of overlapping, sometimes conflicting, and sometimes co-ordinated spatial logics and temporal frames. Our second conclusion is that the material aspects of globalization have a very weak effect on the conditions of later life. Our analyses of the data show that global actors have not created a ‘race to the bottom’ in the services and institutions that aim to ensure the well-being of older people. Rather there are still wide international variations in spending on healthcare, rates of labour market participation and pension provision. Moreover, as the data in figure 2 show, exposure to economic openness has little or no impact on these aspects.

Figure 2. The relationship between economic globalization and public spending on old age benefits in the OECD countries: 2011

hyde-fig-2

Source: (Dreher 2006, OECD 2015);

The new masters of the universe

However, this is not to say that global actors have no impact. Several ‘epistemic communities’ have emerged, around anti-ageing medicine, the new pension orthodoxy and active ageing. Müller (2003) has defined epistemic communities as networks of knowledge-based experts, potentially drawn from a variety of fields, who share a common belief in ‘specific truths, a set of normative and causal beliefs, patterns of reasoning, and discursive practices’. In each case the networks we identified comprise global actors, such as the World Bank, the UN and multinational cosmetics corporations, as well as regional actors, like the EU or ASEAN, and national governments. The existence of these epistemic communities problematizes the dominance of methodological nationalism in the formulation of both the policies and the cultures of old age. They also challenge, once again, the too simplistic equation of globalization with the imagery of an unstoppable juggernaut which operates with its own deterministic logic. Instead we have to move away from the either/or of national or global actors being determinant for the production of the conditions for ageing and later life and rather that we need to examine the assemblages of actors operating at different spatial levels.

Future directions

Overall our analyses show that although global processes are having an effect on the experiences of ageing and old age, so too are many other things. Of significant note is that it is often older people themselves who, through their own social and cultural engagements, are responsible for reconfiguring the field of ageing and it this continuing engagement that ensures that the relationship between later life and the development of these new spatialities will be one of transformation rather than determinism. This conclusion has been starkly underlined by recent global events. On the one hand we have witnessed the continued mass migration of people around the world. Alongside this we are seeing the reassertion of the sovereignty of the nation-state, a return of protectionist and isolationist rhetoric and the creation of both symbolic and actual borders. Yet the current trends towards deglobalization are not associated with a push to improve the lot of older people, demonstrating that a return to the ‘nation state’ is no guarantee of better protection for older people.

This blog first appeared on Ageing Issues https://ageingissues.wordpress.com/2016/11/17/globalization-the-challenges-for-gerontology/