Remember when it was fashionable to hate old white men? Of course you do. It was only a few weeks ago. In the era of BC – Before Coronavirus – there was no hipper prejudice than to loathe old white men. If you were pale, male and stale, you were bad. You were to blame for everything. Trump, Brexit, sexism, every misfortune that befalls the millennial generation: it was all the fault of old blokes with white skin. As Simon Jenkins said, PSMs (pale, stale males) became the last social group it was 'OK to vilify'.
How things have changed. Now, deservedly, the hero of the moment is Colonel Tom Moore, the former British army officer who raised more than £30m for the NHS's Covid-fighting fund by walking around his garden. It's his 100th birthday today. Which means, to use the foul old language of the BC era, he is about as 'stale' as it gets. And yet we love him.
Is it possible that Moore's heroic fundraising, and the broader struggle faced by elderly people in this time of Covid, will help to beat back the woke ageism of recent decades? I really hope so.
On the internet the other day I saw a meme juxtaposing two photographs. In the first, taken in January 2018, a painfully woke protester, complete with pink hair, holds up a placard saying 'No country for old white men' on the Women's March against Trump in London. In the second there's Colonel Moore, with his army medals on, leaning on his walking frame and summoning up his strength to raise funds for the fight against Covid-19.
It was such a striking illustration of the divides in our society. No, not between lazy, ungrateful millennials on one side and stoic older people on the other. Most millennials are fine, actually. They do great work. Indeed, a large number of them are currently on the frontline of the NHS's fight against Covid-19, using the money raised by Colonel Moore to help save people's lives. That's true intergenerational solidarity.
No, it captured the split between an ageist ideology that has crept into certain political circles in recent years and the reality of older people's lives, the reality that older people – even old white men – are still important citizens who do a great deal of good for this country.
There are few prejudices that have got my back up as much as leftish ageism in recent years. The contempt heaped on 'stale' people has been horrendous. Older generations have been demonised as backward, racist, greedy and pampered, and of course as the destroyers of young people's futures.
Who can forget when tens of thousands of Remainers marched through the streets of London, some of them waving placards accusing older generations of having wrecked their dreams? Or that magazine article that was headlined 'We should ban old people from voting'? Or when Vince Cable – hardly a spring chicken himself – said that too many old Leave voters were 'driven by nostalgia' for a time when 'faces were white'? In short, they're racist, which is the modern equivalent of being evil.
Oldie-bashing reached depressing levels. Novelist Ian McEwan got Guardianistas chortling when he joked about Britain soon becoming a Remain country because 1.5m of the 'oldsters' who voted Leave will be dead. 'Angry old men... freshly in their graves', he fantasised. Polly Toynbee likewise said the 'will of the people' would soon become the 'will of dead people'. Oof.
As for the Corbynista movement, that swiftly became a cult of youth obsessed with getting young voters to back Jeremy. Fine. Except that, as with all narrowly identitarian movements, it didn't only big up the 'good' identity (in this case young people) – it also demeaned the 'bad' identity: older people. 'Boomer' became a dirty word. They were a 'generation of sociopaths', to cite the title of Bruce Cannon Gibney's 2017 book. They 'ruined everything', said a writer for the Guardian.
An extraordinary myth has taken hold about Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. Namely that they all had a free university education, a job for life, and a home of their own that they bought when they were about 25. This is complete nonsense. The vast majority of Boomers never darkened the door of a university. Many left school at the age of 14 to work and keep their families in food and lodgings. Some even lived in slums, which mercifully no longer exist in the UK.
Prejudice is so often based on false assumptions, and that is no different for the prejudice that says old people are all wealthy, greedy sociopaths who are now sticking two fingers up at the struggling young. Yes, many millennials are having a tough time, but believe me, you have experienced nothing like the depths of poverty or hardship many Boomers were brought up in.
There has been, in the words of the author John Sutherland, a 'war on the old'. In his book of that name, Sutherland explored how 'wrinklies' are increasingly being depicted as a burden on the NHS, a barrier to young people getting into the housing market, and as the hoarders of wealth. Bad old white men and poor put-upon millennials – this is the nasty and wrong narrative that has been pushed by people who really should know better.
Now, at last, a shift seems to be occurring. Colonel Tom Moore (he was promoted from Captain for his hundredth birthday) is universally loved. There is widespread concern for elderly people in care homes. The nation is rallying around their older family members and neighbours.
That is exactly as it ought to be. The old are not drains on society's resources or backward nostalgists who have screwed up politics and destroyed young people's dreams. They are the people who made this society we live in, who gave us the opportunities we enjoy, and who deserve to live their latter years in dignity and comfort.
I hope we remember this even when Colonel Moore takes a much-deserved rest from the spotlight. I hope we never see a return of the hatred for old white men or the dehumanisation of older citizens as 'stale'. If the Covid crisis can do one good thing, let it be to destroy this last acceptable prejudice.