Today, our society is marginalising more and more of those that find themselves on the periphery. Our idea of community is gradually being eroded. We’ve already witnessed how politically skewed conversations on terrorism and immigration have demonised large swathes of minority communities within our own. Simultaneously, other groups within our societies are also being brushed aside, some without as much public awareness or vitriol. In one such instance we are seeing a latent ageist attitude engineer another purge within our populace. As we grow older, we too are in danger of being one of those marginalised to the periphery.
From women in the media who hit a certain age and are then moved out of the public limelight, to the disparate state and lack of interest in our care homes. Cuts within the NHS are jeopardising the quality of our emergency care for the elderly. Multi-generational homes are now a thing of the past, and as a result, loneliness has become a precursor to more visible health issues for the over 60s. Worthy and worthwhile job opportunities are getting narrower as we grow older, whilst younger ‘managers’ take over in industries where experience and knowledge are absolutely necessary. People over 65 are treated either with contempt or overt sympathy, without any enthusiasm to actively integrate into our everyday societal life. Even looking amongst my younger peers within the creative industries, there seems to be less (not a complete loss though, thankfully) desire from these generations to seek out answers from those who have had the experiences from age. It seems easier to turn to one of the multitude of design blogs to seek solutions, rather than engage with an older generation. Even loss of traditional crafts and languages is a symptom of this societal behaviour that currently focuses too much on the right here and now.
Not since the 1970/80s has there been in evidence such a strong vein of blinkered selfishness and individualism within our society. Fame and individual wealth are considered our badges of honour as they were then. Helping each other is seemingly becoming more and more obsolete. Why are we breaking our communities apart once more, and why does it matter?
I believe the difference between the mood of the people that led to an ‘uprising’ in the UK against the previous attack on our social ideals, and what I see around me now in the 21st century, is that people now have a lot less time for — and less ability to really communicate with — other people. Even though we’re in the middle of this perceived age of super-connectivity through social media and digital networks, where I can find friends from high school I last saw 30 years ago, keep in some kind of snapshot-contact with my family the other side of the world, or even tell my central heating system what time I’ll be home. At the same time, breaking news will constantly feed updates to my phone, location prompts will help me locate the closest coffee, and the latest person to like the pic of my last meal I had will be flagged. But, I think all this hyper connectivity, and what it does to the self, has become part of the problem to why we can’t seem to pay enough attention to others in the world around us.
The screen has become our prescribed window to this interconnected network of links, likes, lessons and loves. It fools us to think we’re spending quality time with people, when in fact we are simply spending more time curating our own series of interfaces that tell people all about us. The combination of believing that what we’re seeing on a generic screen is the absolute truth, and the way that social media is creating a narcissistic elevation of the self, means to me that we’re having less and less real interactions with people in order to learn from them. We’re running to Google and trust implicitly the information given to us in the first link. Although we may essentially be getting the correct answer this way, we’ve eradicated the need to verbally converse, argue, and contemplate. These are skills which actually help us to form stronger bonds with other people. We understand individuals points-of-view more implicitly through seeing first hand the idiosyncrasies that create these individual personalities. Today just the facts are needed. Context is excess baggage.
What we forget is that essentially we are social animals and contact and context is paramount for our survival. We are built to learn from others. We learn from mistakes. We learn from context. This is how our Id part of our brain learns; the part that’s behaviourally hardwired for our survival and drives our continued evolution. It drives our instinct, our desire to mate, to eat, to cross the road safely. All animals have this instinct, but in some species certain intrinsic behaviours are exploited further by nurturing social bonds. Dolphins do this when learning new dialects or ways to fish from their elders, and they do so within very close interaction with their teacher. Because of this close connection, these bonds are further strengthened, the group sizes then grow, and new cognitive exchanges take place. It’s no coincidence that the perceivable bigger strides made along the evolutionary path seem to be made from animals which have elaborate social networks.
What I believe is happening now with humans and our interactions with digital interfaces, is the uncontrollable rise and rise of the Ego. This part of the brain’s thought processes purely looks after its own narcissistic thoughts. It doesn’t want to deal with other people and their worries. It’s wholly responsible for curating our own pleasurable desires and devising ways on how to achieve them. Our brain becomes seduced by these thoughts and loses focus on processes such as developing social connections in order to learn and survive, as it just doesn’t have the time or the desire to do so. Even something as simple as curating our online personas has become all consuming and in turn helps to fuel this Ego. We have created an age of loneliness where we are forgetting others within our society due to this fascination with ourselves. Recent studies show the life of the lonely, especially those that become digitally dependent, fuels depression, anxiety, dementia, and paranoia. This in turn leads the brain to further feel isolated and self-absorbed, which further turns the perpetual cycle of thinking about oneself rather than the group. What slowly happens is that the weakest individuals — the groups within society that have the quietest voice, or weakest personas — get cast aside and become the unheard. We lose the capacity to turn our attention to those in need. If and when we do find out we care about something, the danger will be we won’t know how to physically connect with that problem to find a solution.
I don’t think we’re at the stage though where we have to throw out our phones and computers in order to save ourselves from oblivion. Well not quite just yet. But we do need to start developing some serious and inclusive solutions, by having frank and open conversations about the state of our society, and from there make brave and bold decisions to bring our society back on track.
There are some wonderful examples across the world that show how we can integrate generations back into society and the symbiotic reward this develops for all of us. In my local borough of Redbridge, the Downshall Primary School in Ilford has just started a project, inspired by social studies in Japan, called ‘Bringing Together, Learning Together, Growing Together’. Here elderly people suffering from isolation, depression and early dementia are invited to attend the primary school and engage at specific times with the pupils in classroom activities such as reading, singing and playing puzzles. The visitors benefit from the social interaction with each other as well as the children. The children themselves benefit from this increased interaction with a different generation of adult that they may already be used to. Children that were previously shy or insular have become more outspoken, and in an area where 87% of the children speak English as a second language, their vocabulary has improved since the inception of this project.
In Brazil, a new policy came into play around a decade ago that aims to give a visible platform to the concerns of the older generations. Within local councils, the elderly were actively invited to be part of the decision making processes and now have a real impact on issues at national, state and municipal levels. The benefit of this says Alexandre Kalache, a UN adviser and former director of the World Health Organisation’s global ageing programme, is “In such countries as the UK or the US, it is more often the case that it is civil society organisations that provide the loudest voice of older persons. Many of these groups do admirable work but they are typically staffed by younger, middle-class professionals, often male, who have limited personal experience of either older age or caring for older persons. The important protagonism of older adults is often missing”.
In Busan, South Korea, more than 20% of the population is over 60 which will have a huge impact on the economy when they reach retirement. As a solution the city as worked with the public and private sectors to create over 25,000 jobs for older people. Mark Gorman, a visiting fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing and director of Strategic Development for HelpAge International, says the value for creating a Government backed infrastructure like this scheme is that although “there are pockets of good practice in low- and middle-income countries … until they translate into structural ways of addressing the issues – which means buy-in from central government – good practice isn’t sustainable”
These are all one-off concepts, and a more joined up and Government backed initiative needs to be addressed, but by creating the time and passion to bring older people into our everyday lives we are uncovering a multitude of positive elements that will help us all as a society. We will be bringing important life experiences and first-hand skills back into our communities and create a stronger mentor-based culture. Cognitively we will be richer and more learned of a wider set of experiences than what we may have encountered ourselves. We can make this possible by creating jobs for a wider range of ages, building in the need for experts and mentors, as well as part time community work in local neighbourhoods. Financially this will be of benefit as the extra employment will create less of a burden to pension schemes and health support, and in turn pull more money in through taxation. Our social bonds too will grow from building bonds between generations, making us a kinder and more open society, and in turn help combat the recent epidemic of loneliness. Technology will benefit too, as we create interfaces and networks that are more open, straightforward and intuitive to all. Furthermore, we will create a societal ecosystem that will be useful and beneficial to everyone rather than those aged in the middle, which will give us all a sense of worth and create a reason for some to keep striving for something rather than feeling the need to give up on life at retirement age.