Age War as the New Class War? A Media Analysis

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy.  You can read an open access version of the article by clicking here.

My paper examines representations of intergenerational injustice that feature prominently in both the contemporary UK media and beyond, focusing on the Guardian newspaper. I argue that such articles constitute both a continuation of previous debates about the economic and social burden of the dependent ‘fourth age’ and a newer and more prominent denigration of the ‘third age’, both of which possess deep cultural and psychological roots. In particular, I highlight their origin in the ‘age system’, which operates through the framework of the lifecourse, in which the role of particular ages and their relationship to each other underpins and legitimises an assortment of material and other inequalities.

Attacks on the (dependent, senescent and older-old) ‘fourth age’ are of course well-known and well-established; attacks on the (youthful, productive, and younger old) ‘third age’ are more surprising, at least in the UK, although they have a longer history in the US. Criticism of the old in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s was directed mostly at the costs of pensions, health and social care and at the ‘burden’ the post-retirement population represented for the rest of society. However, there has been a notable broadening of such critiques since 2008’s financial crisis and the subsequent introduction of austerity measures to include the older generation’s unfair political influence and success at the ballot box, their advantageous housing, education and pension capital and, in existential terms, their privileged amounts of lifetime luck and success. This trend is particularly worrying as welfare states are founded upon an implicit intergenerational contract which is being eroded through this discourse.

Yet it is an inaccurate representation as evidence refutes many of the claims regarding baby boomers’ so-called ‘privilege’ including in education (just over 13 per cent of those aged 65-69 have a degree); finances (30 per cent of those aged between 55 and 64 do not have any private pension, affecting 37 percent of women as compared to 19 per cent of men) and housing stock (one quarter of those aged between 55 and 64 live in rented accommodation and under a half own their property outright). Furthermore, it homogenises age categories, overlooking the extent to which they are internally stratified by class, gender and other features. For example, in terms of pensions there is a striking difference in wealth between those with private pensions and those without; between private pension types (Defined Benefits or Defined Contributions); between occupational class; and between genders.

In the UK, the media has played a significant role in constructing this attack on third age ‘privilege’. Moreover, such representations are particularly prominent in the progressive media. The reasons for this, I suggest, result to a large degree from a cultural antipathy to ageing and old age embedded in modernity and importantly depicted as a brake to progress and radicalism, a bias that is germane to the age system and yet, unlike other forms of discrimination, still largely invisible. In my paper, I identify and analyse these representations as they appear in influential opinion pieces as well as editorials since 2010 in The Guardian. I employ a methodology that draws upon rhetorical and figurative approaches which share with critical discourse analysis a focus on the connection between language, power and ideology. Together they highlight the emotional logic of neoliberalism working through the shaping of affect and attachment in individual subjectivities. I found that the trope of the greedy, selfish and fortunate older person, although most apparent in The Guardian, recurred across a range of contemporary media sites, appearing repeatedly in the New York Times, The Atlantic, the Huffington Post, Time, Forbes, and The Times, among others.

In the Guardian, despite the presence of articles that were balanced or sympathetic to older people, either in terms of the age war discourse (for example here and here) or in coverage of other issues such as retirement (see for example Amelia Hill’s series of six articles published in 2017), the rhetorical weight of the depiction of this theme fell overwhelmingly on the side of ‘blaming’ the old/third age. This was the message conveyed not only in opinion pieces and columns but also in many editorials and headlines.

I found that four main themes predominated, occurring separately as well as in various combinations. The first theme depicted the old as enjoying disproportionate political influence, with sub-themes noting their conservative and nationalist tendencies. The second highlighted the current advantages accruing from favourable present and past policies around housing, wealth including pensions, welfare spending, as well as previous educational opportunities/social mobility. The third theme suggested psycho-social and affective dimensions, such as the old ignoring the suffering of the young, of contributing to the latter’s poor mental health and included the old acknowledging their generational culpability as well as the young’s (justifiable) envy of the old.

The final theme argued, either explicitly or implicitly, that age war is more salient in establishing inequality than class war today. Indeed, cumulatively, the implication is that the oppression of old by young amounts to class war, an argument with three strands: (i) meaningful age-based divisions relate to inequality and advantage in direct ways; (ii) generations stand in conflicting classes characterised by difference and in some cases by direct antagonism and (iii) age and generation are coherent categories for attributing both agency and blame.

Despite this, I suggest, conflict is not inevitable. There is still a broad social concern, shared by all ages, for older people as well as future generations as revealed year on year in British Social Attitudes series. It is this commonality and shared sympathy that could be emphasised, via some modification of tone by the mainstream media. For this to happen, however, will require recognition – including by the ‘progressive’ media – of the importance of the age system in shaping inequality as well as the age ideology that, underpinning it, makes of the older generation the ‘enemy’.


Dr Susan Pickard is Reader in Sociology and Departmental Research Lead at the University of Liverpool.



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