Mother’s Day is one of those days every year when we think of the role of the women who brought us into the world, and how much they have done and sacrificed for us and our welfare, from when we were a mere collection of cells, to now when we are studying for degrees (some would say our brain cells are perhaps not much more developed than when we were but a collection of cells in some respects). However much progress has been made (albeit painfully slowly) towards equal pay and representation for women in our society, women will always be pressurized to juggle their work and home lives to a greater extent than men.
What worries me is that this noble cause where women rightly have more of a choice in living their lives as they want to live them has created a culture and a mindset where those who choose – actively, rather than subjects of some false consciousness or religious pressure – to stay at home or only work part time to be with the kids as they come home from school, are targeted as a drain on society and the public purse. Housewives (sorry), homemakers, stay-at-home mums: whatever the word we use for them, their work is indeed that – work, which for example produces far more of a social good than the likes of bankers or estate agents or lawyers. Yet it is not categorised as such, and our society does not reward it, it penalizes it.
This is nothing to do with a woman being made to feel guilty for not pursuing her career – of course women should strive for the top echelons of the work pyramid, breaking the glass ceiling and entering the boardrooms; it is nothing to do with sexism – I firmly believe a ‘househusband’ can do the same job, and in our modern age with “all sorts of families” (Mrs. Doubtfire, 1993), including women with higher-paying jobs or same-sex parents, this is increasingly common. However there is a cultural bias against those women who choose to remain at home and work bloody hard to raise a family, often while holding down part-time or volunteering work, and this is reflected in our nation’s appallingly inadequate childcare arrangements.
In other countries – such as Germany with its stronger economy – there are subsidized childcare benefits, or help for mothers. Child tax credits and SureStart centres used to come close to this, but these are being slashed by the Coalition, which prefers to reward bankers, those earning above £150,000 a year, and potentially those who are married as opposed to all parents, co-habiting parents included. Mothers who decide to give up or put their careers on hold are penalised again later as they pick up their state pension, at a time when older people are living in fuel poverty, struggling to finish paying a mortgage and helping their children to get onto the housing ladder or with university tuition. They may even have to bring up another generation, as their children cannot afford childcare for their own sprogs so have to hand them over to the grandparents, who have no recognition or help from the state for helping bring up the politicians, doctors or teachers of tomorrow.
Nowadays, if you’re not contributing to economic growth or paying income tax, you effectively do not exist. If you are doing your best to balance all of your commitments and bring up well rounded children you are ignored. It is about time mums who choose to stay at home for all or part of the time are recognised and treated with the respect they deserve by our policymakers.
Ageism is very different to the other ‘-isms’ we try to avoid in today’s supposedly enlightened, tolerant society. Most men will never be female and vice-versa, and we will never truly experience life as another race to the one we were born as. However, barring some sort of untimely death, we will all one day be old. Yet this is the group in society which is perhaps the most vulnerable and ignored.
It may be humorous, but some of the jokes around the notoriously ageist BBC’s choice of old-time crooner Engelbert Humperdinck to represent the UK at Eurovision have masked some alarming underlying currents of ageism and ridicule which are common in today’s media and discourse but usually pass unnoticed. Some of them have been about dementia and Alzheimer’s. There has also been serious criticism that he has been chosen, arguing that he should get out of the way and allow young talent to fluorish. People in the public eye who dare to continue in their career beyond 65 get sniffed at, despite still having the energy and drive to continue working. Why should he crawl into some care home and age quietly, with no fuss?
This brings us onto the more unnerving aspects of ageism in today’s society. The care system in England is a disgrace. Almost on a weekly basis there are reports of neglect and abuse in care homes up and down the country, with some staff accusing patients of “attention seeking” for desperately needing help to relieve themselves, children and grandchildren never visiting them, and pensioners still at home never getting out of bed because if they did they would freeze, as they cannot afford to put the heating on and pay the bills to the six main lecherous price-fixing gas companies (who are the real drain on our society). Meanwhile people are forced to sell their homes or inheritances to pay for their parents’ care because they receive little or no help from the government. Never mind inheritance tax, what about the low and middle income people who receive nothing from their parents because they have to give it to a private organisation which may or may not treat their loved ones with dignity and respect?
The state machine also picks on the elderly because they are vulnerable, in the same way that they pick on the young, the unemployed and the disabled. While the heads of top banks avoid paying tax altogether or manipulate it so they only pay the lower corporation tax, and Osborne no doubt prepares to justify lowering the 50p top rate in the Budget, ordinary retired pensioners are being routinely harassed to pay back money handed to them by mistake, without having it explained to them that it doesn’t have to be in a lump sum. I know a 93-year-old lady who took the trouble to write a letter asking why her winter fuel allowance was being slashed, and all she got back was a letter saying there is no money left and why doesn’t she ‘go online’ to find out more. Now there are many tech-savvy elderly people out there, but I don’t know many nonagenarians who served in the war who have a Gmail account and Facebook profile.
We live in ‘tough times’, as they keep ramming down our throats, and money doesn’t grow on trees. Yet times were harder in the 1940s austerity period and they managed to establish the National Health Service. Instead of spending money on the implementation of the Health and Social Care Bill (a laughable title for the effective privatisation that awaits us), why not set some aside for the eventual creation of a National Care Service for the elderly, or at least a free service for the poorest old people? Andy Burnham called for one in 2010, and now sadly Labour, in its’ attempt to appear economically competent, has gone quiet on the proposal. Yet it can be done.
It’s about time the elderly who don’t need patronising were allowed to continue living their lives to the full, and it’s about time those who no longer can do so without help are treated like human beings, and not a burden on the public purse which should die quietly.