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They’re killing my participants!

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Sue Nieland writes about an under-valued group of UK citizens, and the consequences of that undervaluing.

I started my PhD last October with hope, excitement and some disbelief that, after so many years of collecting Masters degrees, I had the opportunity to join the elite group of postgraduate researchers within the OU. I knew it would be a challenging journey with ups and downs, highs and lows, that I would soon lose the star-struck overawed-at-academic-celebrity naivety.  What I wasn’t anticipating, though, is the utter despair just six months on as I watch the government’s policies on COVID-19 kill my participants.

It was always going to be a challenge to undertake my research – into the political decision-making of the oldest of our citizens, those aged over 75 years - because I would be interviewing people who are in the final years of their lives, and who typically have had little opportunity to voice their opinions or views aside from where they might spend their grey pound. Known as the Silent Generation, these are the people whose political opinions are lost within the aggregation of up to forty years of life into the ‘65+’ polling categories, and who have routinely, and inaccurately, been blamed for voting to leave the EU. As research has shown in the last year or so (e.g. Devine, 2019), the older citizens were more likely to vote to Remain in the EU as they experienced life outside of it, prior to 1973, and immediately post-World War II. They experienced those times, rather than reinvented them as subsequent generations have, those who love to draw on and use available political rhetoric of bizarre war metaphors relating to a time they haven’t really a clue about.

As I started to research into the Silent Generation – so called because they quietly get on with life, working hard, and talking little about their experiences – I came across something I had begun to suspect, the insidious arrival of ageism in life’s later years. Married to an older man, I noticed how suddenly he was becoming invisible in the street, how customer service shifted away from really caring what he thought to basically not seeing him. As he said to me before the lockdown, even the chuggers in the high street fail to see him. Constructions of the ‘unproductive and contributing little to society’ ageing population (Swift et al, 2017) homogenised a group of people whose worth has become based on their supposed present and future value as income generators and tax payers, not what they have already experienced and what knowledge and understanding of the world they could share. Despite the efforts to think about older age in two cohorts of active or third agers (Swift et al, 2017; Gilleard and Higgs, 2010) and fourth agers, the oldest and most fragile (Gilleard and Higgs, 2013), society lumps together the over-60s into one polling category, one group measured more by deficit than by value, and more recently, as ‘the vulnerable group’.

Yet when we have an important, patriotic and politically exploitable anniversary of something connected to World War II, the Silent Generation emerge with a type of situated value – they are wheeled out, sometimes literally, to say something about the glorious victory of Great Britain (not the Allies, or those in Europe, Russia, America, Canada and so on without whose help we wouldn’t have prevailed) to the cameras. Often, they say something critical about Brexit which is largely ignored (Hutton, 2019). They are used to make us feel proud of our ‘Blitz spirit’ and never say die attitude, and then they are removed from sight, the medals go back into their storage case, and they go back to the care home or the retirement village. And their voices literally are silenced. With the events of the past few weeks, and the government’s decisions about discharging older people from NHS hospitals to care homes without COVID-19 testing, that silence for many becomes permanent.  

As I write this, the news has announced the knighthood of Captain-now-Colonel Tom Moore following his quite astonishing feat of raising millions of pounds by walking over 100 laps of his extensive garden, with his walking frame, at the age of almost 100 years old. Politicians, celebrities, the public and the media quite justifiably appreciated this effort, and suddenly an older member of our society is celebrated. But Colonel Tom is appreciated because he has perceived value, he is doing something, contrasted with the citizens in our care homes, or those sent from NHS beds into care homes to die. They had no perceived value, and if anything were just in the way, not recognised as being worthy of proper medical care because the beds were most useful to the younger, more valuable members of society. Colonel Tom could have been one of those – but because he has a family, a large property and a degree of financial independence, he is protected. We now know that thousands weren’t.

If the policy to discharge elderly COVID-19 patients to care homes to free up NHS beds was a mistake, a tragic error during ‘unprecedented times’, then perhaps some forgiveness towards policy makers could be forthcoming. But increasingly it seems that this was not a mistake, it was an intentional, planned policy to avoid the sort of images coming from Italy of an overwhelmed health service. Together with special adviser rhetoric from Dominic Cummings – now widely reported – that the loss of a few old people was acceptable to keep the economy going in his belief that ‘herd immunity’ was the best strategy, it can only be assumed that this was the plan all along.

What does this mean for my research? If anything, it has made the research more important than ever. The Silent Generation isn’t just an abstract numerical category of people – they are a unique cohort who have experienced the world of war, political change and upheaval and the emergence of the European Union. When they are gone, so much will have gone with them. Almost certainly thousands have gone as a result of the virus and the actions (or inaction) of our government. All I can hope is that, if a time ever returns when I can sit in a room face to face with a person in their eighties or nineties, there will be survivors to talk to. Right now, I can’t be sure that will be the case.

I was prompted to write this after attending a CuSP meeting and hearing colleagues talk about the work of Mary Douglas in ‘Purity and Danger’ and how she talks about ‘dirt’, how this is ‘matter out of place’ and how the appreciation of something as ‘dirt’ depends on where it is located.  Subsequent authors have used this to explore social ‘dirt’, such as homeless people being ‘matter out of place’ (Berganini, 2019). As I was listening, I could see how those very sick, elderly people who were transferred out of hospital to care homes were ‘matter out of place’. They were occupying space needed for more valuable others, and were therefore ejected, becoming, if you like both social ‘dirt’ and medical ‘dirt’. The shame this brings on our society, and our politicians’ decision making since February, is almost too much to bear.




Berganini, S. (2019) Neoliberal dirt: Homelessness, stigma, and social services in Fort Collins, Florida, Unpublised MA thesis, Colorado State University.

Devine, K. (2019) ‘Not all the over-65s are in favour of Brexit – Britain’s wartime generation are almost as pro-EU as millennials’, LSE Europe Politics and Policy, at https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2019/03/21/not-all-the-over-65s-are-in-favour-of-brexit-britains-wartime-generation-are-almost-as-pro-eu-as-millennials/ (accessed 10th June 2020)

Gilleard, C. and Higgs, P. (2010) Aging without agency: Theorizing the fourth age, Aging and Mental Health, 14, 2, pp. 121-128.

Gilleard, C. and Higgs. P. (2013) The fourth age and the concept of a ‘social imaginary’: A theoretical excursus, Journal of Aging Studies, 27, pp. 368 – 376.

Hutton, W. (2019) ‘These old heroes evoked a glorious shared purpose. It’s now under threat’, The Observer, 9th June, p. 45.

Swift, H.J., Abrams, D., Lamont, R.A. and Drury, L. (2017) The risks of ageism model: How ageism and negative attitudes towards age can be a barrier to active aging, Social Issues and Policy Review, 11, 1, pp. 195 – 231.  


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The value of the Silent Generation

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In this week’s social psychology blog, Sue Nieland writes about a category of voters who are usually disregarded in political polls, known as the Silent Generation. She reflects on the political failure to acknowledge their experience and viewpoint, and explains their special importance for her PhD research.

I voted to remain in the EU in 2016, and I am classed as an older citizen. I soon grew tired of the constant clustering together of anyone over 60 as ‘old and voted leave’ as I definitely am not, did not and neither did many of my contemporaries (vote leave, that is). 

Looking at this further when thinking about my  PhD in political psychology, I found that the use of categories to cluster people, whilst convenient, hides some deeper meanings in political decision-making, particularly for the older citizen. Many researchers are busily investigating reasons for the unforeseen outcome of the UK-EU referendum. I wanted to explore how experiences of Europe and our relationship with it influenced the vote. I decided it was particularly important to hear from the voters who have lived the longest and whose experiences include the Second World War and its aftermath. 

Polling data by YouGov, Ipso MORI and Survation clusters voters by age. Survation’s categories are typically 18-24, 25-34 up to 65-74 followed by a final category of 75+. Ipso MORI are similar, featuring 65+ as a final category, or occasionally 75+ depending on the data collection. YouGov use a final 65+ category for most of their survey research. There is therefore a general tendency to cluster everyone over 65 into a single category or occasionally to subdivide them at 75. The message from this is that once you are over 65 years old, you are part of a group spanning possibly 40 years. Your opinion and political choices are no longer important enough to disaggregate further. 

This leads to generalisations around citizen choices. The important one for my PhD is that ‘older people voted to leave the EU’. This, though, may not be an accurate conclusion. Evidence is emerging that whilst someolder people did vote to leave the EU (the so-called Boomers), those older still were more likely to vote to remain. My PhD will explore this in detail, and particularly around the experiences of a unique cohort of people, the Silent Generation, born between 1927 and 1946 – now aged between 73 and 92 years. Participants in this group may remember World War II and its aftermath. They will certainly recall the rise of the European Union and the first referendum in 1975.  Their political decision making will be influenced by experiences that other younger citizens nostalgically refer to (without actually having been there), such as the ‘Blitz spirit’ and war-winning achievements that are often cited as reasons why a hard Brexit will be survivable (even if we have to eat turnips for ten years). 

There are further categories that also diminish the older citizen. The ‘third age’ is used to refer to the active aging, such as those who are still in some way contributing to society or using their retirement productively to continue working, learning or travelling. But there is also the ‘fourth age’, described by Gilleard and Higgs (2010) as a ‘black hole’ into which people who are infirmed and dependent, and (supposedly) of limited societal value, are aggregated. The ‘black hole’ metaphor is well chosen – it can suck those from the third age into it if they are not aging in a way that keeps them away from its edges. 

The Silent Generation received their label  because they tend not to talk about their experience of the Second World War and what came afterwards. But there is an argument that they are silent for other reasons – that their value as citizens and their opinions are not recognised. However, they have a form of ‘situated value’. This was seen recently during the 75thanniversary of the D-Day landings on 6June 2019 when veterans were rolled out to reminisce about their experiences and revisit the horrors of that time, before being rolled back into silence. What was significant, though, about the events of 6 June 2019 is that the veterans were notsilent about the EU and our decision to leave. Some of them expressed regret at the decision to leave the EU in 2016 and the threat that brings to peace that has existed since then. As Will Hutton argued in the Observer just days after the event, there was a ‘disjunction’ between the values held dear by the veterans and Brexit. In his words, ‘it betrayed what they had fought for’ (Hutton, 2019). However, this message is now forgotten, for the value of the Silent Generation was only acknowledged around 6 June 2019 . Politically we have moved on. 

When building my PhD proposal, I believed that I could contribute to ‘giving a voice’ to the Silent Generation.  However, with the benefit of supervision and more reading, I realised that I want to explore this group of people from a dialogical approach, building on the work of Zittoun (2014) and others.  In my PhD, I intend to explore the voices of this generation and their political decision making. I will also investigate the role of nostalgia in politics. One important question will be whether political references to World War II do represent what the war meant to those who experienced it. 



Gilleard, C. and Higgs, P. (2010) Aging without agency: Theorizing the fourth age, Aging and Mental Health, 14:2, pp. 121 – 128

Hutton, W. (2019) ‘These old heroes evoked a glorious shared purpose. It’s now under threat’, The Observer, 9thJune, p. 45

Zittoun, T. (2014) Three dimensions of dialogical movement, New Ideas in Psychology, 22, 99 – 106. 


This week’s blog is the first in a new series from PhD students in the School of Psychology and Counselling. Sue Nieland is a member of the School’s staff who is studying for a PhD in social psychology. You can read more about the School and its staff here http://fass.open.ac.uk/psychology

 You can watch a short video about the Level 3 Social Psychology module DD317 here https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1258641

You might also be interested in the Open Learn short course DD317_1 Social psychology and politicshttp://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

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