Media Portrayal of Older People

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2017 National Delegate Conference
24 February 2017

Conference notes with concern the negative and profoundly damaging images of older people, both as individuals and collectively, that are continually and consistently put out by the mass media in Britain. This includes portrayal of the age group as having access to large pensions, doing little that is worthwhile and at the same time being a drain on society’s resources and a burden on younger generations. The media and politicians have whipped up a “phoney war” between young and old implying that pensioners have escaped the worst impacts of the austerity measures at the expense of the younger generation.

This attitude is illustrated by the following statement issued by the Work and Pensions Select Committee to launch its inquiry into intergenerational fairness: “the current generation of people in or approaching retirement will over the course of their lifetimes have enjoyed and accumulated much more housing and financial wealth, public service usage, and welfare and pension entitlements than more recent generations can hope to receive”.

During the past year, elements of the media seem aggressively intent on portraying older people in a negative manner, claiming that hard-won benefits such as free prescriptions, winter fuel allowance and bus passes give pensioners an undeserved privileged position in society. The implication is that some of them should be withdrawn. In truth we know that for many, such benefits make the difference between a frugal lifestyle and one of poverty.

Conference does not believe that pensioners have escaped austerity and notes the following facts:

1)Almost 40% of those aged 65 and over in the UK experienced poverty at least once between 2010 and 2013, compared with around 30% of those under 65;

2)42% of older people in the UK said they have struggled to afford essential items such as food, gas, electricity;

3)Cuts to adult social care budgets mean that 1.5 million older people in England have care and support needs that the state does not meet and either have to fund themselves or go without;

4)Meals on wheels services have been reduced over the last five years from 300,000 to just 109,000. At the same time, the average price of a meal has increased by 22% and malnutrition among older people costs the NHS an estimated £13 billion a year.

Far from enjoying gold plated pensions and untold wealth, millions are living in poverty or fear of poverty. Services on which the majority of older people disproportionately rely have been cut or are under threat. Pensions and benefits have so declined in value that even basic needs cannot be met and thousands die each winter from cold related causes. At the same time the contribution of unpaid labour by older people is a vital part of the bedrock of society without which families and communities could not survive.

Indeed, comparing a pension to a benefit drives retirees ‘up the wall’ as they have worked all their life for it, said Steve Webb when he was the Pensions Minister in 2014. He also said that people earn their state pension throughout their working lives by paying their national insurance contributions and feel “stigmatised” by the idea they are claiming benefits. In 2016 nothing has changed much, where both the government and news media still fail to recognise the fact that most of today’s pensioners are receiving a return on their investment in the state and not some form of hand-out, and continue to portray those in receipt of pensioner entitlements in much the same way as other traditional benefits.

Quite often the media seeks to draw an unfair comparison between pensioner entitlements and the wider working community, failing to recognise the many years of hard work put in by most of today’s pensioners to earn the right to receive a decent pension, concessionary travel and free prescriptions.

Conference is concerned that the myths about wealthy pensioners immune to the effects of the austerity measures will be used to attack the universal benefits which improve the quality of life for many older people.

Conference believes that the myths must be challenged at every opportunity. In reality, means-testing the winter fuel allowance would have little impact on intergenerational inequality; and there has never been any data to show that 18 year olds are demanding that their grandparents’ bus passes or winter fuel allowances should be taken away.

Maligning pensioners has become a media habit and Conference needs to combat this attitude urgently. We are in a difficult position in that we can’t withdraw our labour to make the point but we can counter the attacks by stating the truth. Many of us have been in paid employment for many years, perhaps raised a family and maybe engaged in house purchase. During this time, we have fully met our obligations to the tax system and indeed continue to do so. Who are these people supposedly deprived by us avaricious pensioners? Is it our families, those we most value and support? Are they complaining about us being given more than our share? Of course they are not. They, like us, know it for the nonsense it is.

Also, Conference welcomes the Trades Union Congress publication, “Young against Old? What’s really causing Wealth Inequality?” which argues that:

a)The principal factors leading to wealth inequality are housing tenure, geography and earnings, not age. The wealthiest households are mainly of working age, not pensioners, and there is no good reason to target pensioners in order to increase support for young people;

b)Means-testing or reducing public spending on older people would have little impact on young people’s long-term prospects; and,

c)The main factors influencing whether young and middle aged people can accumulate wealth through property and pensions are wage levels, job security and housing tenure not public spending.

The truth as stated earlier this year in the excellent National Pensioners Convention submission to the Works and Pensions Select Committee is that the contribution made by pensioners to our society every year vastly exceeds the cost of pensioner benefits by billions of pounds.

Conference is alarmed at the impact of this coverage which creates discord between generations, builds resentment and hostility and promotes and supports discrimination against and exploitation of older people. It significantly increases their vulnerability, leaving them open to abuse by family and strangers. It derecognises the potential of their energy, knowledge, skills and wisdom from which society could so much benefit.

Further, older people are characterised as being “behind the times”, unable and unwilling to communicate through modern technologies and hence as being in a large measure responsible for their own isolation. They are disproportionately depicted as victims and objects of pity. Their economic, social and cultural contribution to society, past and present, is largely ignored. They are under-represented as authors, experts and contributors to the public arena. Older women LGBT people and Black people are particularly vulnerable both to negative imagery and “invisibility”.

Conference urges the National Executive Council to campaign vigorously with the government and news media to change the way pensions and other entitlements are promoted and reported to the general public. It calls on the National Executive Council to:

i)Work closely with the National Pensioners Convention, Trades Union Congress, Scottish Trades Union Congress, Scottish Pensioners Forum, other trades unions and relevant organisations to gain support for a campaign seeking to ensure that positive and diverse images of older people are maintained and strengthened in our union, the wider labour movement and in society;

ii)Urgently organise a campaign strategy to make our concerns known to the relevant media sources;

iii)Make the TUC publication “Young against Old?” widely available; use the electronic replacement for Interactive to promote it; ensure its main arguments are reflected in the UNISON Charter for Older People, once reprinted; and, seek ways to make common cause with the Young Members’ Organisation on these issues;

iv)Raise the awareness of working and retired members of UNISON of the myths that are peddled by the media, their purpose and divisiveness and how to campaign against them;

v)Encourage and support all UNISON members and organisations, and particularly its retired members sections, in countering local and national media on ageism and misrepresentation of older people and replacing it with positive coverage;

vi)Work with UNISON’s National Young Members’ Forum to dispel the myths outlined above and to promote intergenerational fairness;

vii)Report progress on a regular basis in UNISON publications and keep regions and branches informed;

viii)Fight to preserve pensioners’ rights for future generations.