If ‘40 is the new 20, is 60 the new 40?’  



It can be amusing sometimes to ruminate on what one label really signifies, including how it may be culturally specific and/or changes over time. It is certainly the case that until improvements in life expectancy in the UK came to a stop, our notion of who was old and what being old actually meant were being redefined. This has often led me to reflect on my own ageing and how this has been measured or labelled.  

Beyond my ever greying hair (which for me started at 11) to my ever widening girth, my ageing has been marked by the labels people have used to address me. ‘Jawaan, what can I get you?’ was often used by the shopkeepers where I bought halal meat for my mother. Jawaan in Urdu means young man and is often used in a greeting or to get the attention of a young man. 

At some point, probably in my late 20s, Jawaan changed to ‘Bhai’.  Bhai means brother in Urdu and is often used to refer to a man of similar generation to yourself.  Being greeted as ‘Bhaijaan’ coincided with moving to a new area and having children. Bhaijaan, again is an Urdu word and means elder brother. It is perhaps at this point that I really began to take note as to how people were perceiving me and my age. Bhaijaan moved me from being viewed as younger or of the same generation as the shopkeepers, to now being seen as older than them.  

What can I get you, Uncle?

The next change in greeting I took particular note of– so much so that I returned home and told everyone what had happened. When I got to the front of the queue, the new butcher looked up and said, ‘Yes, Uncle, what can I get you?’.  Uncle was obviously not an Urdu word, but a word appropriated by many communities colonised by Britain. Perhaps it has been adopted because of the complexity (different words depending on whether it is your mother’s or your father’s brother) and multiplicity of words that could be used (Thaiya, Bhera Abu, Chacha, Popaa) in my Punjabi and Urdu speaking family/community. Nevertheless it has become an accepted way to respectfully address an older male.  

For me, when I first began to be addressed in this way by people I was not related to, it did jar because it seemed to be a constant reminder that I had aged, perhaps revealing my own insecurities and prejudices. But over time I have come to realise that I much prefer to be called ‘Uncle’ than other words such as ‘Sir’, not least because it emphasises familial relationships rather than one of servitude.


Using ethnicity data to identify discrimination

I have been involved in exploring and using labels in my working life too. I was involved in coordinating support for the Test Census that took place in a number of wards in Birmingham in 1989. This eventually led to the inclusion of an ethnic group question for the first time in the 1991 Census.  

Subsequently, I helped the Department of Health develop the guidance issued in support of the inclusion of ethnic group recording in the minimum data set for health and care provision. In the mid to late 90s, over 40 local authority social services departments used my analysis of what works in ethnic record keeping and monitoring, implementing it in their services.  


 The driver for all of this work was to better understand the impact of racism on the lives of black and minority ethnic communities, in order to encourage action to address inequality and then to monitor what, if any, change has taken place.


Rising populations of older people

Gaps in data persist, for example, data on the gypsy and traveller communities. However, the availability of data has allowed us to understand the changes in the make-up of Britain’s communities whose origins are in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia. Whilst these communities continue to be comparatively younger than their white majority counterparts, there has been a significant rise in older people with, for example, over 75s rising from 24,664 in 1991 to 162,992 by 2011.  


Poverty in BAME communities

The availability of this data has allowed us to disaggregate our analysis. We have known since Peter Townsend’s work on poverty that families with children and pensioners were at greatest risk of experiencing poverty. But with the ethnicity data also now available, we have been able to see the dimensions of inequality, with John Hills analysis, for example, showing that whilst some black and minority ethnic pensioners have incomes at least as high as their white majority counterparts, for a large percentage of all these communities their income is comparatively lower. 

In addition, they are at greater risk of being amongst the poorest of pensioners. 

Elevated risk for dementia and heart disease

The growth of “older old” people, identified by analysis of the censuses, has been accompanied by analysis from David Truswell that the risk of developing dementia for a range of black and minority ethnic communities is comparatively higher. Evidence of higher rates of type 2 diabetes for Caribbean and South Asian communities, may partly explain the higher rates of the development of dementia in later life.  

Higher rates of hypertension are experienced by African and Caribbean communities and South Asians have a higher risk of developing coronary heart disease. These are also likely to be contributing factors. These higher risks, we know, can be modified by exercise as well as diet, and therefore the evidence of lower access to prevention programmes that focus on increasing exercise is a worry.


A pioneering generation

In the context of this evidence, we should not lose sight that this generation of black and minority ethnic older people have been pioneers, in many ways, and continue to play a part in shaping their own lives.  

They range from those who are using the internet to maintain their ties with their countries of origin, to those who have played a key part in establishing thriving and active faith communities. In addition, the black and minority older people who responded to my research on quality of life, were likely to report poorer physical health than their white majority counterparts, but still rate their own quality of life more positively.  


Avoiding stereotypes

Labels or ways of measuring social phenomena, such as ageing and ethnicity, are valuable in helping us to understand the impact of social action. 


But we need to ensure that we do not then create stereotypes or see people as passive victims.


Used effectively, this evidence can help inform social action that builds on people’s strengths


Jabeer Butt is the Chief Executive Officer of the Race Equality Foundation


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Independent Age.