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There has been an interesting thread on our Facebook group this week based on people’s experiences of not being in the grandparents club. People talked of being at retirement parties, family get togethers, clubs they belonged too & even holidays with friends where they were treated as completely invisible because they couldn’t join in with the grandparent chat. The exclusion of non grandparents is something we’ve blogged about before

The feeling of being, and even more so treated, as invisible & of less importance than parents is a common experience for people ageing without children

In our 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 2016)

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. 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.

Sadly the prejudice and judgement also faced by people without children remains strong. Often, its 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 having children 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 have in place to ensure their children don’t have to look after them, 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).

The language & stereotypes used to describe people without children ageing or otherwise is often deeply unkind. At best we are seen as selfish hedonists who chose not to have children so we could have more holidays & a nice lie in at the weekend to truly horrible descriptions of selfish immature people who have no stake in society and even suggestions we should be excluded from voting or from being politicians as our lack of children makes us unable to understand “normal” people. It doesn’t get much more unkind than that

The practical effect of this unkindness, of this invisibility and judgement is policy, & planning on ageing that assumes all older people have children and services for older people that rely on them having someone which in the majority of cases is their child, to smooth the way & makes things work.

People ageing without children are up to a third more likely to be carers for their parents 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.

Being kind, thinking before we speak, putting ourselves in other people’s shoes, all of these make a big difference to groups who already feel marginalised & excluded. Show people from marginalised groups that you are listening & acknowledge their concerns.

Kindness can make a better society for us all; kindness can – can you?

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