Why the grey army soldiers on
The Facebook generation is suffering but silent while their grandparents are keeping up the fight against austerity, writes Celine Naughton
Born between the years of the Great Depression and World War ll, they were once known as the Silent Generation, but on October 22, 2008, they proved themselves a vocal, militant force to be reckoned with. Mustering 15,000 of their troops to demonstrate outside Dáil Éireann against the proposed means-testing of medical cards for pensioners, they henceforth became known as the Grey Army.
That army rallied again this week when up to 12,000 people attended Tuesday's march against Budget cuts to the elderly.
There are more issues at stake this time. In addition to a lowering of the income limit on medical cards for over-70s, older people now also face increases in prescription charges for medicines, along with the abolition of both the bereavement grant and the telephone allowance.
However, while the most memorable placard last Tuesday read, "Stand by your Nan", there is a new, younger cohort who may not completely share this sentiment of support.
Some say that the perks of old age are being funded by those who can least afford it, the 20- and 30-somethings, Generations Y and X, who have suffered most in the recession.
Economic studies show that today's impoverished youth is the first generation in living memory to be worse off than their parents and it's hardly surprising if they are disenchanted with the legacy of ruin they have inherited through no fault of their own.
The Facebook generation did what they were told; they went to school, worked hard, often took out student loans and juggled work with university education for the promise of good jobs that didn't materialise.
Now they must wonder whether the cupboard will be completely bare by the time they reach pension age, should the benefits and entitlements bestowed on older people continue unabated.
Tuesday's Prime Time referred to ESRI findings that the average family has been hit 4-5pc more than the average pensioner over the last four budgets; therefore, is it not time that older people take a hit and leave something for their grandchildren apart from the burden of debt?
"I'm not an economist, but the measurements used to gauge how people deal with austerity don't take account of what older people spend their money on," says Mairéad Hayes, CEO of the Irish Senior Citizens Parliament (ISCP).
"Many of our members assist their family financially. They pay mortgages and buy food for their children, give them a hand with deposits and look after grandchildren when hard-pressed parents can't afford professional childcare.
"It's not that older people want to get something to the detriment of others; in fact, when the property tax was introduced, most of our members who were entitled to defer payment did not, their reason being that they didn't want to leave a debt after death. They want to pay their way."
While the Government's proud boast is that it is not touching pensions in the budget, it is the cumulative effect of all the other cuts and levies that has older people worried.
"A survey of our members in May this year showed that many have eaten into their savings to subsidise their families and pay for essentials," says Mairéad.
"They can't afford to repair or replace home appliances, some feel they can't afford to borrow from the credit union in times of need, others said they can't afford to go to the cinema, they worry about the water charges, and the vast majority have a fear of becoming ill."
In 2008, as the first Grey Army marched on the Dáil, an elderly man held a placard which read: "Just shoot us – it would be quicker."
Former TD Joe Behan remembers it well. It was this month five years ago that he resigned from Fianna Fáil at the proposed medical card changes and he remains vehemently opposed to the latest slew of cuts targeting the elderly.
"My views are as relevant today as they were then," he says from his school principal's office in Bray, Co Wicklow.
"These people were born in the 1920s and '30s, they came through hard times, made sacrifices and built up this country. I think the marker of a decent society is one that looks after its elderly and its very young and vulnerable, yet here we are back discussing the same things all these years later.
'The problem for the over-70s is that they have no earning capacity while they face increasing infirmity with age, along with the worry and stress they have to deal with now about their future. It's really sad."
Except that this year, while 12,000 is a decent turnout for a Grey Army rally, it is still substantially fewer than five years ago. Could that be due to a flagging sense of empathy or support?
"No, I don't believe that," says Joe. "I'm convinced the solidarity is still there, especially among families.
"Young people are deeply concerned for the welfare of their parents and grandparents, but people are worn down with continual hits and trying to keep themselves going amid all these austerity measures.
"It's not a lack of support for the elderly. I honestly believe people are just waiting for the elections to make their feelings heard through the ballot box."
Neither does he believe that there is any need for intergenerational conflict. Despite soaring college fees, mass emigration and cuts to young people's social welfare payments, he sounds a confident note for Generation X and Y. He assures them that they will not be left in penury or have to deal with the fallout of a pension timebomb.
"The actual savings made on these latest Budget cuts are small in relation to the national deficit. They can be lost or gained quickly.
"As a country, we have a high birth rate and a growing population which will make it sustainable for people to be given dignity in their old age and young people can aspire to the same thing when they get older. We just have to look after each other."
Wednesday this week saw another demonstration outside Dáil Éireann. This time it was a youth rally protesting against planned cuts to the jobseeker's allowance. Only 60 showed up, yet they garnered substantial media coverage – signs, perhaps, of another silent generation finding its voice.