• joshuahelmer

The Age of Empathy

I have a new job as a door-to-door charity fundraiser (yes, I'm that guy right now) and, other than the toll it's taking on my feet, it's all been going quite well. I started in December, stomping the frosty streets of the East Midlands during the tail end of the General Election campaign, which ended with our nation covered in such a cold blanket of unforgiving blue.

With any new venture, the learning opportunities at work have come thick and fast and, aside from my new found comfort with flat out rejection, I seem to have stumbled upon one major lesson in the days between my first shift and now; Empathy, like our bodies and minds, seems to decay with age.

Now, I'll admit, I'm still reeling from the election results. I don't think I ever really believed that the good guys would win, they just had too many clever ideas, too much compassion, too much desire to do things for people other than themselves that our electorate could never possibly vote for them. But I had hope the world would do something great for once.

Instead, voters backed Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine, trusting them to not destroy our future, despite them running on the bold platform of "We're going to destroy your future".

And who can really blame the voters? With all their excellently constructed policy positions, such as "2 Nurses + 2 Nurses = 200,000 Nurses" and "Let's shoot our economy in the head, once and for all", I'm surprised Apprentice Boris and Sith Lord Cummings didn't make it a commons clean sweep.

Talk about the job, Josh

Sorry, this rant isn't merely a personalised post-poll-post-mortem or the lament of a wounded leftie. There are patterns to look at, threads to tie together and, most importantly, one sided anecdotes to cram into gaps in the narrative.

Since becoming a door-knocker, I've encountered all manner of different people (plus hundreds of consistently wonderful dogs). But the responses I receive upon my arrival at strangers homes can be slotted neatly into 4 categories:

1. Donations - people who see your badge, listen for 5 seconds and immediately want to give

2. "I wish I could" - people who care, want to talk about the topic, but right now can't/don't want to give

3. "Not for me thanks" - people who are polite, willing to chat, but this cause just isn't for them

4. The fuck offs - people who slam the door in my face and/or tell me to fuck off

Now, I've not been keeping tally and my methodology is far from scientific, but, from personal experience, there is an age curve here. It looks eerily similar to the voting patterns indicated in the graphs below. The younger someone is, the more likely they are to want to talk, to hear about the issues and to donate. Whereas, when a man in his 50s answers the door, my heart sinks, as I'm almost 100% sure they're either going to shut me down or, worse, attack me for daring to darken their door.

In fact, the only abuse I've received on the door has come from men in their 50s and 60s. I'm not saying they owe me anything, but it displays a dearth of empathy to verbally assault someone who is trying to raise money for charity.

So how does this relate to politics?

In my opinion, you really have to do an awful lot of mental gymnastics to argue that the Conservative Party were anything other than the most self-centred party on offer in this most recent election. There was no hope in their manifesto and, despite warnings, the only people set to benefit from their newly bolstered majority are the richest few in our society.

I'm not going to flog a dead horse here. I voted Labour and they lost. This campaign was an abject failure on their part. The same can also be said for the rest of the parties involved in the ̶R̶e̶b̶e̶l̶ Progressive Alliance, other than the SNP of course, who achieved almost everything they could. But the policies on offer from all parties either in the centre or on the left at least demonstrated a basic understanding of what the real problems are that we as citizens face today.

We are underpaid, we are over worked, we don't have secure housing, we don't have stable health care, our world is burning, our streets are becoming more dangerous, our education system is failing and our poorest and most vulnerable are being left out to dry by a government that has systematically deconstructed our social safety nets that took decades to build.

Solutions to these problems were on offer from a whole range of parties. But our country rejected them all in favour of Mop Top and his puppeteer. In my view, we're divided by empathy, which, to me, neatly follows one major fault line. And, you might be surprised to find, it's not necessarily the same divide we've been told about. No, this is not a Leave vs Remain thing, but an age problem.

They're how old?

As this graph from YouGov's website shows, the major sliding scale in this country is age. If you don't believe me, take a look at the rest of the data on the same page.

Social grade is no longer a good predictor of voting intentions. Nor is gender and, interestingly, neither, really, was Brexit position. Yes, the Tories managed to bag 75% of the leave vote, but they only won because they also took back a large chunk of remain voters. The dominant indicator of voting pattern is age.

This isn't news, though. Tories win because they lock up that old folks vote. It's a tale as old as the average age of Conservative party members. But the question is why?

The people voting Tory today were young once, or so I'm led to believe. If the graph above is accurate, it begs that we ask what happens to people around the age of 39 that they stop dreaming of being a Jedi and become a full blown Sith fanatic?

Well, life, I guess.

As Certified Compassion Fatigue Educator Jessica Dolce states, people develop coping mechanisms throughout life to deal with and insulate themselves from pain. In one example, Jessica talks about the pain she felt during her time working in an animal shelter and how "numbness [is] a normal and predictable sign of compassion fatigue". One experience that made her cry, euthanising a dog, had become so run of the mill for her assisting colleague who had worked there longer than her that she lamented her inability to feel the same way that Jessica did.

The longer people experience hardship, the more likely they are to switch off to it's effects. Ask anyone who works in any sort of care role, you have to develop a thick skin to survive. My mum has been a nurse her whole career and, let me tell you, there might not be a person on earth with as thick a skin as her.

I've experienced something similar myself. In an old job, I used to work with people in massive amounts of debt. I started off bright eyed and bushy tailed, railing against the apathy my team mates and managers demonstrated. But, while I doubt I ever quite sunk to some of their levels of numbness, there eventually came a time when I stopped being bothered by people crying down the phone. I had to. It was a coping mechanism. And I saw it all across my old company. But, most of all, I saw it in those who had been doing the job the longest.

In a meta study on the relationship between age and empathy, researchers found some links between advancing age and lower levels of empathy. Some of the studies involved following participants for over 40 years and one major quote from the article really stuck out to me:

"Some studies suggest a negative pattern of age differences, whereas others suggest no significant age differences. No study, however, suggests an age-related increase in empathy."

Whilst this clearly isn't scientific proof, it's startling to know that, while many studies have shown links between youth and empathy, none of the peer-reviewed studies analysed showed empathy increasing with age.

If Jessica Dolce is right, it's no wonder the Tories win more votes as people age; who has experienced more hardship to harden their hearts than the old? Life is hard as hell!

We are underpaid, we are over worked, we don't have secure housing, we don't have stable health care, our world is burning, our streets are becoming more dangerous, our education system is failing and our poorest and most vulnerable are being left out to dry by a government that has systematically deconstructed our social safety nets that took decades to build.

Hope fading nightly.

Some of our politicians tried to offer hope, but failed to inspire enough voters to overcome our flawed electoral system. It's a crying shame that we've taken another step away from a fair world and, instead, have jumped head first into what will no doubt be a greatest hits of all the worst things the Tories have done to us over the last 10 years.

Some might chirp about how this was not about hope; it's about how bad Corbyn is, or how childish the Green movement is, or how fickle the Lib Dems are. But ALL of those arguments demonstrate a poisonous lack of empathy.

To assume all those faults are terminal, but ignore the Conservative party's vilification of the poor, rampant Islamophobia and homophobia, blatant lies, track record of privatisation, hostility towards foreigners, open disdain for the NHS, abuse of the disabled, supply of weapons to enact war crimes, propagation of food bank culture and documented efforts to enrich only those at the top of our economy shows that any person who votes for them must be doing it out of sheer selfish interest, throwing away the well being of hundreds of thousands of other people so that they can reduce their tax bill by £250 a year or so that they can one day join the rich elite, despite the fact that social mobility in this country is stagnant like the flood water our government is failing to prevent from smothering some regions of the country.

Empathy, like our bodies and minds, seems to decay with age.

Time to get angry at the elderly?

Yes. Sort of. But also, really, no. There is one other strong indicator of voting intention; education.

The more we know, the more we care, it seems. Or at least, we vote like we care.

Education is the key to returning empathy to British politics. Should we be extending education for adults so we can continue to learn later in life and properly fund education for our children? Yeah, probably.

If only someone had come up with policies like that at the last election, right?

Alas, a dark decade awakens. But, maybe, we can be our own guiding light. Maybe we can find our own way through to a brighter tomorrow.

So this is my cry. Let's not berate people for ignoring the well being of others as they age. Instead, lets battle against Tory cuts and failures and teach each other as much as we can about the world around us. Teach your friends, teach your family, teach your children. Teach them about the plight of others, teach them about what they deserve in this life, teach them about how the system is rigged from the start and it's their job to unpick our mess. Teach them that hope and love are the only way for us all to grow together.

And in the mean time, I'll keep on knocking on those doors. I'll keep smiling at the faces of this numb population, those who have been beaten black and blue by the unending misery brought about in the last decade. I'll hold my ground, look them in the eye and ask them to help those worse off than them. This is my promise to you.

For as long as it takes for the youth to rise up.

For as long as it takes for the empathy to return.

For as long as it takes for me to find a better job.

This is my promise.

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