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Andrea Leadsom’s comments on motherhood, bad enough in print but considerably worse on audio where the full “but I have children” emphasis shines through, have highlighted exactly why AWOC is needed.

Her comments do not come as a surprise, In our recent research “Our Voices”, feelings of being invisible and of being judged came up repeatedly

“There are in our society still strong taboos associated with being an adult without children. People who have chosen not to be parents, in particular, face a lot of criticism, and the implication is that they ‘deserve’ anything that happens to them in later life, as they should have thought about that before. Even for those who wanted children but were unable to have any, there is a suggestion that they have no stake in the future, have no interest in what happens to society at large, and are ‘less finished, less emotionally complete, and less capable’” (Our Voices 2015)

AWOC is concerned primarily with people over 50, that is people who are growing old or are old without children. As we have pointed out repeatedly, no policies or strategies exist to address the 1 in 5 people over 50 without children in the UK. Why is this? It’s not as if there hasn’t been huge coverage over the last 10 years around the increasing number of women (we know it affects men too but media coverage has focused on women) without children by choice or circumstance. The number of women without children has doubled in a generation from 1 in 9 of women born in the 1940s to 1 in 5 of women born in the 60s. Some reports are now starting to mention e.g. the just published Foresight report “the future of ageing” and of course the IPPR report “the generation strain” covers it extensively but it hasn’t led to any concrete plans.

Being old and being without children means being at the intersection of 2 parts of society that are routinely rendered invisible. The effects of ageism have been well documented e.g. YouGov poll of people aged between 65 and 93, almost two thirds (62 per cent) were concerned about being seen as a problem by society and 47 per cent complained of ageism. 48 per cent said they thought their generation was ‘ignored’, and more than a third (37 per cent) felt treated disrespectfully because of their age. The recent EU referendum released a torrent of abuse against older people who had voted in larger numbers to leave even though this was based on everyone over 65 rather than a breakdown into age bands as was done for the under 65s. Older people are routinely treated as an homogeneous mass with no separated out views. Research has shown that older people are “considerably under-represented” on TV with over-55s accounting for just 8% of entertainment presenters and 12% of lead roles in drama. As people age, they are simply less visible in society.

Thanks to Andrea Leadsom’s remarks bringing it to the fore, the prejudice and judgement also faced by people without children has been laid bare. Often as we say in Our Voices, its often the very casual nature of such hurtful and judgemental comments that make them so hard to respond to. Jody Day from Gateway Women describes the common remarks people make without stopping to think as ‘bingos’. We reproduce some of them here:

  • ‘You should have thought about that when you were gallivanting around for your career!’ (Not knowing about infertility, lack of partner, etc. and also describing any woman with a job as a ‘career woman’).

  • ‘If you’d really wanted children, you would have tried harder.’ (To someone who may have endured multiple failed IVF cycles, or has perhaps taken the decision not to be a parent because of a genetic condition that made being a parent unwise).

  • ‘I didn’t have children so that they could look after me when I’m old!’ (Though when challenged by being asked what plans they do have in place to ensure their children don’t have to, these plans never seem to exist)

  • ‘Well, what have you got to worry about? You’ve got loads of money that you’ve saved from not bringing up children!’ (Unaware of the cost of living crisis for the many who live alone and don’t get family tax breaks, let alone fertility treatment debt).

  • ‘You can all just live together when you’re old.’ (As if that’s what they’d like for themselves, not considering the needs of the individual, nor later life care needs).

  • ‘You can’t expect the state to support you now; you should have thought of that earlier!’ (Not considering that adults without children may have paid taxes their entire working lives to support the infrastructure that benefits families: education, health, roads, leisure, sports, and so on).

The narrative around men ageing without children also contains its own bingos:

  • ‘Lucky escape mate!’ (Implying that being without children is an enviable state to most men, even though the poor health of men ageing without children shows this is far from being the case).

  • ‘Charlie Chaplin was fathering them into his 80s.’ (Implying that men can go on fathering children until well into old age, even though research shows that is definitely the exception rather than the norm).

However, this isn’t about hurt feelings, it’s not about reading another post on social media calling women (because despite all efforts and the fact that data suggests 23% of men don’t have children, it’s still branded a woman’s issue) who don’t have children selfish bitches, hags, crones, barren, lacking feelings, being unable to find anyone willing to reproduce with them and all the other joyous things we are labelled with or accused of. No it’s the far more sinister and invidious practical effect of that invisibility and judgement especially when you throw age into the mix.

Being told that you have no stake in the future of society is bluntly a different level of chilling. As someone on twitter put it

“the insult is not that Leadsom thinks that the childless don’t have a stake in the future, it’s that that’s how she’ll treat us if she wins”.

That gets to the nub of the issue especially for people ageing without children and takes things to a different level. We already know that older people, especially once they’ve retired, face ageism and gradual invisibility. One of the repeated questions asked after the EU referendum was “why should older people be allowed to vote on issues when they won’t have to deal with consequences?”; the response to this was often framed around “older people should be able to vote because they have stake now and they have children and grandchildren which they also think about when voting”. Once again the message seemed to be you should only be able to vote if you have a stake in society and that stake is presumed to come from having a family.

On a practical level, which is what AWOC is mainly concerned with, health and social care for older people only works because families shore it up

“Most care for older people is not provided by the state or private agencies but by family members, at an estimated value of £55 billion annually” (the Generation Strain IPPR 2014).

Many people ageing without children are carers and know exactly how hard it is to make the system work which also means they have no illusions about what faces people with no one to speak up for them.

If people without children are seen as, and far worse, treated as having no stake in the future, and we already know that older people struggle to be treated well even when they have family, what kind of future do people who are old and without children face? Already marginalised and overlooked in discussions and policy on ageing, narratives such as those from Andrea Leadsom bring a different level of fear. It’s not about feeling hurt or having to justify choices that we may or may not have made, it’s about being told that you don’t matter and that as you have no stake in the future, your future doesn’t matter. Couple that with the invidious ageism that pervades our society and it’s no wonder we are angry but also scared.

AWOC is the only organisation campaigning for people ageing without children but we are run entirely voluntarily without even an office base and we can’t take on such huge issues alone. If you are an organisation working with older people ask yourselves what you are doing to address the needs and concerns of people ageing without children?; if you are ageing without children yourself, join us and help support us in our campaign.

All of us whether we have children or not have a stake in the future and AWOC wants a future for all older people that is positive, life affirming and fulfilling. Help us make it come true.

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