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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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