He’s an unlikely revolutionary. For a start, Allan Martin is establishment if not Establishment: former Director General of TV2, and then TVNZ long before de-regulation. But he’s also a man who has carried his many awards and honours lightly, never allowing any of this pesky eminence to get in the way of his quiet sense of challenge.
He’s 80 now and a long way from even the oldest boomers, but his work has lessons for us. This year he graduated with a PhD from Auckland University - the oldest graduate of the year.
By itself that says something about life after work, though he never retired or allowed himself to be categorised as a retiree. In fact the trapped potential of older people is at the core of his doctorate. What’s radical about it is the suggestion that given the right factors, now is an opportune time for older adults to contribute to social and political change.
'Findings of this research support the view that the majority of older adults remain fit and healthy and do not conform to the medicalisation approach to ageing on which government policy and, to a large extent, public attitudes have been formed' he wrote.
'While there would be problems of organisation in the formation of a new social movement there are no insurmountable obstacles to overcome. The greatest difficulty would seem to lie in overcoming inertia, sectional interests, generating the leadership and developing innovative and imaginative educative processes.'
In the midst of this nascent revolution are the babyboomers and Dr Martin makes it clear that within them there are deep divisions. He splits the boomers into two groups - the early boomers, born between 1945 and 1955, and a later group born between 1955 and 1965. The first group was born into post-war austerity, the second into a period of prosperity. He goes on to group them in three categories:
* A selfish generation - ‘one of individualists, pioneers of the consumer society, uniting around their own fulfilment and their wealth, with little regard for the less well-off or future generations’.
* Civic Defenders - ‘a generation of liberal activists against the erosion of the public realm, creating the conditions for radical and progressive politics’.
* Invisible elders - ‘a fragmented generation, failing to coalesce, with little or no influence. Splintering into sub-groups absorbed into other currents of social change’.
Dr Martin believes the potential for the development of a social movement will most likely lie with Civic Defenders. And ironically for a generation sometimes derided by for its inability to use new technology, they will do just that.
‘The possibility of older people generating and disseminating ideas is a realistic one; while younger cohorts face the pressures of time, preoccupations and priorities of everyday life, many seniors have time available to communicate and exchange ideas which could maintain political pressure and influence the direction of social change’.
He points to the development of SeniorNet throughout the country. It now extends to 102 groups and learning centres run by independent committees which organise their own premises, classes and funding.
The debate about the future of older citizens - if it surfaces at all - has usually been dominated, as have most of our debates since Rogernomics, by the dreary science of economics. Dr Martin acknowledges that and adds that the broader social, cultural and political dimensions have been ignored.
‘…so it is likely the dynamics of largely unpredictable and rapid change in contemporary society could see the development of a new social movement arise quickly, unheralded and without much public notice’. According to Dr Martin, three inter-related issues will promote this process:
* Activities focusing on self-interest (for example efforts to protect superannuation rights and medical services). ‘While this raison d’etre would be attractive to many it carries with it the risk that a debate for social security entitlements as its major concern would alienate future generations as well as a large section of older adults who would perceive this approach as narrow and self-serving’ says Dr Martin.
* Activities focusing on social- interest - working to challenge and change attitudes towards ageism, retirement, community, tradition and the decline of voluntaryism with a view to building a more just society. ‘A positive and pro-active approach to these issues would have the potential for innovation through learning and education and be more attractive to those older adults who found little attachment to the limited objectives of an organisation based on self-interest’.
* Activities focusing on the public interest - attempts to forestall further privatisations of public services and addressing wider issues including ecological degradation, nuclear power, racism, poverty and materialism ' where it has become obvious that a material yardstick cannot be used to measure human well-being…’
Dr Martin believes these three principles weaving through the concerns of older adults could provide a unifying frame for an emergent new social movement.
'A new social movement composed of disparate groups representing seniors, and initially perhaps somewhat lacking in solidarity and cohesion, would soon recognise that the power to influence the direction of social change lay in the threat that sheer voting numbers represented to those holding the reins of political power.'