(Top photo: Jake Lewis)
There is increasingly a trend, in the design of care homes for Alzheimer's patients, towards constructing environments that look and feel like the world of their residents' youth. In the pioneering "Dementia Village" of Hogewey, on the outskirts of Amsterdam, patients are housed in residences that resemble the Netherlands of the particular era in which they grew up, dwelling in units themed to reflect their particular class or ethnic background.
The Dementia Village works by giving its patients back the world that, through age and illness, they have lost. Unable to form new memories, the present cannot be a home to them. So it makes sense that the solution to this problem would be to allow them to exist, if only partially, in a physical world that resembles the past. And as it turns out, this helps an awful lot. A 2013 CNN report suggests that residents of the Hogewey Dementia Village eat better, require less medication, live longer and seem more joyful than residents in traditional care homes.
So these Dementia Villages sound like a great idea. But what if this idea – making an otherwise alien world familiar once more through the artificial reconstruction of the signifiers of a bygone age – was to become more than simply an innovative way of running a hospital for the members of this ageing population who get sick? What if it came to form the basis of a political movement?
Something like this seems to be happening already. Over the weekend we were been bombarded with reports that the government is preparing to spend some ungodly amount of money on making our red passports blue again, and then treated to the unedifying sight of Simon Heffer arguing in the Daily Telegraph that, as a strong, independent nation, we ought to bring back imperial measurements. Meanwhile, a bunch of decaying senior Tories have been foaming at the mouth, trying to kick-start Empire 2.0 by declaring war on Spain.
Overwhelmingly, Brexit was something older people wanted and younger people didn't. Post-Brexit, the Brexiteers are in control – and so older people are running away with the country. And precisely what these people seem to want (apart from getting to bomb Madrid, of course) is to make the world familiar to themselves again, by resurrecting the signifiers of the past. They want to turn back the clock on every incremental scrap of progress we've experienced since 1945, making it easier to spend their twilight years cosily re-enacting their childhoods buying tripe by the pound and playing cricket with their Golliwogs on the village green, as Spitfires fly overhead and Rule Britannia blares out from the pavilion in the background. They want to erase a world that, they feel, has become confusing and hostile, and retire to the half-remembered certainties of what they assume were the good old days.
The fact that this is happening over Brexit is symptomatic of a deep and serious problem that most liberal democracies in the developed world are going to have to confront within the next ten or 20 years. In a democracy – particularly one, like the UK, where representation is winner-takes-all rather than proportional – the largest voting bloc is always going to be able to drive policymaking. If older voters dominate, then (obviously) for politicians to win and retain power they're going to need to give older voters what they want. So if what older voters really want is a fantasy-image of a world that now seems lost to them, well: canny politicians are going to try to transform the world in line with that fantasy.
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To young people this should seem alarming. If our parents and grandparents really do succeed in bringing back the world of their youth from the past to the present, then where does that leave us? If the world as it is seems alien to older people then it must seem all the more alien to millennials, who have been systematically excluded from the institutions that, as children, we were told we would need to participate in, in order to count as successful: from property ownership to professional jobs. Falling behind on your rent is depressing enough: just how much more alienating will it seem if we have to start failing to pay it in pre-decimalised currency?
To my mind, recent developments indicate that young people are going to have to wake up to the fact that, in a way, we constitute a distinct class, with a unifying set of interests. We have to contend with our political domination by our elders, convincing them that our interests need to be taken into account as well, before they really do succeed in turning our future into their past.
If we don't? Well, in a few decades time – when all the jobs except care work have been automated away – we could find ourselves living out our lives toiling for two shillings an hour to make our generously-pensioned, property-owning parents and grandparents more comfortable in their dotage; boiling their sprouts and re-arranging the bunting, struggling not to drop dead prematurely from exhaustion even as our geriatric overlords remain robust at 150; as every five years they snuff out any hope we might have of being liberated from this whole grim cycle, by voting the Tories back in again.