Idea Of The Day

The Revenge of the Elderly

Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth” is a line from the Bible, but as James Meek (no relation) argues in a persuasive article about population forecasts, it is the elderly who stand to inherit the (developed) world in the forthcoming century. All about us there will be gray hair, or dyed gray hair, or no hair at all, and how such an elderly society will affect our politics and culture is hard to say. One can, however, imagine a further poignancy to W.B. Yeats’ words in “ In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” one of his poems about Lady Gregory’s son, a young Irishman who died as a World War I pilot in Britain’s air force: “What made us dream that he could comb gray hair?” Few of us will die young, fewer still in combat, but the outpouring of grief for those who die without gray hair (especially if they are famous) will surely intensify.

A case study of the color of things to come, of how the elderly will impose their political weight, can be found in Britain’s Conservative Party. Margaret Thatcher is not the leader of the Conservatives, but she is its most influential member. In a letter published in today’s DailyTelegraph, Thatcher endorses Iain Duncan Smith to become the next head of the Conservatives and says that a victory for his opponent, Kenneth Clarke, in next month’s leadership election, would be a disaster. This letter, more than any manifesto, should seal the outcome of the leadership contest, such is the weight of Thatcher’s word. When Thatcher was prime minister over a decade ago, she famously derided those who supported the idea of the “ nanny state,” yet here she is, going about the politics of her party not just like a nanny but like an interfering granny. Her example suggests that established politicians will in future not only have to outflank the young ambitious types eager to take their seats; they’ll also have to look over their shoulders toward an ever-expanding and influential group of seniors, who from their armchairs or putting greens seek to take revenge on those who pushed them out. (Oh yes, Duncan Smith is bald with gray thatching over the ears.)

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