Belfast Telegraph

Why I can’t see red over the old grey whistle test

By Tom Sutcliffe

BBC ageism row reignited’ reads the headline on the Anchor Trust's website, giving details of its ‘Older Faces Audit’.

Well, they hope anyway, since pretty much the sole purpose of the survey is to get the words ‘Anchor Trust’ into the papers — and mere smouldering isn't going to pay off terribly well.

They want the towering clouds of black smoke that you get when indignation burns — and to that end some poor sap has been given the task of counting wrinklies on the telly to demonstrate that there's not nearly enough of them.

I'm a wrinkly myself for these purposes, incidentally, since they were hunting for over-50s — and as such I suppose I should feel a surge of umbrage at the revelation that the facially-weathered turn out to be under-represented on the small screen.

Apparently, only 20% of presenters and actors on BBC1 are over 50 compared with 34% in the population at large. ITV performed slightly better with 27% of over-50s, while BBC2 inconveniently bucked the trend completely by featuring 37% of over-50s — which, logically, should spark a protest by the more youthful mid-lifers, I guess. Given that these findings are drawn from just one week's broadcasting you might not want to set off just yet, though, whether you're agitating for more grey hair or less.

I imagine that the BBC could readily find a broadcasting week in which the balance tilted a bit more favourably to equable representation.

But, if it was true, and represented a consistent prejudice in favour of youth (which would fit with broad expectations, surely) should we really be outraged by it?

I find it a little difficult to get worked up — even though I suppose I should be waving my birth certificate at the BBC's commissioning editors and demanding that they give middle-age a chance.

It's not that I'm in favour of ageism. In fact, I've noticed that my opposition to this particular form of discrimination grows stronger with every passing year.

It's not a good idea that the BBC should institute an informal retirement age which comes into effect 20 to 30 years before the official one.

But I am a bit wary of demographic selfishness — I worry about the effect on society as a whole of a cohort of stroppy and demanding 50-somethings.

Just after I'd seen that report on the ‘older faces audit’, for instance, I noted another survey (by YouGov) which reported that couples are delaying getting married and starting families because they simply cannot afford to buy their own house.

The rise of house prices over the last decade or so — a rise which has disproportionately enriched the over-50s, it should be remembered — has made things very difficult for first-time buyers. This, too, is a social unfairness — but I don't suppose that baby-boomers will be eagerly supporting attempts to drive the market down to more realistic levels.

They (‘we’ in my case) are inclined to take our dumb luck in this respect as an entitlement. We've already calculated that the capital is ours and mentally built our retirement plans on it.

At the same time, we're eagle-eyed about generational unfairnesses that don't run in our favour. That well-paid job which helped us pay off the mortgage early? We'd like to hold on to it a bit longer if you don't mind — given the dent the recession has left in the pension fund.

And tough if that makes it harder for you to pay your mortgage — or get one in the first place.

By all means let’s be vigilant about the unreflective prejudices against the over-50s, but let's not forget that the lottery of birth date has given our generation of over-50s a lot of unearned advantages, too.

If we really want social equity, we may have to be prepared to share them.

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