One would be forgiven for assuming that the OAPs of Ireland are staunchly traditional in their views. After all, they are the last generation for whom the Church and the State have had the most influence and power and they’d be forgiven for clinging to the ‘good ol’ days’ in the midst of whiplash-inducing social change. And yet, when speaking with this audience, we were immediately struck at just how surprisingly open minded a group they were generally when it came to certain aspects of Irish family and Irish life. And, in particular, just how progressively minded the women in this age cohort were compared to their male counterparts - a gender difference also borne out in our quantitative research.
With a unique perspective on Irish life that spans five generations – their grandparents, parents, themselves, their children and grandchildren – this audience have plenty to say on how things, in their opinion, have changed in Ireland for the better and indeed for the worse. With regards the latter, they are most consistently nostalgic about the freedoms they believe they had as younger adults and children; ones they lament are no longer available to the youngest members of Irish society;
We were never in the house, we were out from morning 'til night… no mobile phones… we only came home when we were hungry.
Although their own kids and grandkids have far more in material terms, they feel that they have far less in many other ways;
I’m so glad I was born when I was born… we had nothing but we had a great childhood.
Many blame this loss of carefree liberty on a corresponding rise in technology and have a love/hate relationship with it as a result. They reluctantly acquiesce that this is the way of the new world and acknowledge that it is important for younger people nowadays to have the necessary skills to advance or risk getting “left behind” in the new digital hub that is modern Ireland. And although a “more educated” youth is deemed a huge positive comparatively, they are scornful of some of the fall-out of this advancement – young people less equipped for human communication, fewer real social interactions and more social isolation as a result.
Life, as viewed by them, has certainly improved in many ways too. People have more rights, greater longevity, there is more education, money does not limit options and opportunities the way it used to, there is more transparency and less ‘turning a blind eye’, and a greater degree of division of labour within the home.
Perhaps the most significant social change they have observed is that there are “less mammies at home” nowadays and they appear to feel genuinely conflicted about this. On one hand it is really positive - it marks greater choice and empowerment for women, particularly when compared to the women of their generation. But on the other, they believe that kids nowadays have less discipline in the home and a greater sense of entitlement because parents have the money to compensate them for their absence with the ‘things’ they want.
These observations around more working mothers generally come without judgement and as a group they are quite progressive. They see nothing wrong with parents wanting more for their children than they had themselves – they would have done similarly for their kids. And, if anything, there is an overwhelming empathy with the parents of today that because of financial pressures they are stuck with the choices they have made. Many women in the groups viewed the fact that they were ‘able’ to stay at home with their kids as a privilege, albeit retrospectively. As a group they were pro-equality for fathers as well as mothers “I think the man should be equally entitled to parental leave the same as a woman”. And thought it absolutely acceptable for women to live independently or to be the main breadwinners in their household;
...their driving ambition is not competition between themselves, it’s to generate enough for their ambitions for their children.
That being said, when it comes to what is and is not acceptable today a disparity between the sexes begins to emerge. Although men and women aged 60+ seem united in their views on issues that impact children finding it less socially acceptable than other age groups, by some margin, to have a relationship with someone who already has children, having children outside of wedlock, gay couples having children and having children with more than one partner - the men in our research were a little more traditional about… well, nearly everything else. They had a more idealised vision of the fairer of the sex – “I’m just a fuddy duddy but the bad language is certainly the thing that annoys the hell out of me and particularly among young women”. Were less supportive of women in the workforce - “you get some women who know everything about their entitlements… and get as much from the system as they can”. They were more inclined than any other age group, and their female counterparts, to agree that if one parent needs to stay at home with the children it should be the mother. And far less inclined to see any merits of divorce – “we worked at our marriages… there’s too much of an easy out (nowadays)”. ‘Traditional’ men were the least likely to agree that marriage is an antiquated institution and most likely to agree that marriage should be celebrated.
Given that all of the respondents we spoke with, male and female, had been brought up in traditional households – a mum, a dad and lots of siblings – and it wasn’t until their own kids had families that they were exposed to more non-traditional familial elements - for example, daughters who are single parents, grandchildren that are gay - and given that they were all roughly in and around the same age, we wondered why it was that the women in both our qualitative and our quantitative research seemed markedly less traditional than their male counterparts?
Perhaps it’s because women by their nature are more empathetic? And certainly in our groups it was the mums/grandmothers who seemed to feel a greater degree of sympathy for the stresses and strains of modern living as experienced by their kids and grandkids. Or maybe it’s because they are more likely to be the unpaid childminders, looking after their grandchildren, and thus are on the front line of modern life to a greater extent than their male equivalents? Certainly when it came to the topical issue of same-sex marriage, women in these groups tend to be more pro-change - “I think if you’re in love with somebody, no matter what sex they are you should be able to marry them if you want to” – compared to the men in the same groups - “the definition of marriage since time… is the unity of a man and a woman and that’s my understanding of it and I have no problem about gay people and lesbians or whatever as long as they keep it to themselves” - driven by some sense of duty to the lives their grandchildren MIGHT lead. These women want to agitate for change on their behalf – “in generations to come it could be my great grandchildren… do I just cross them off completely?” Although we don’t know how many of them actually took action and voted ‘yes’, they did seem more likely to do so than their male counterparts.
No doubt all of these factors have contributed. It seems though that the best explanation for this difference in mindset and outlook is not just down to a greater exposure to and empathy with modern life, but that Irish women aged 60+ have been the most clipped members of Irish society. The State regulated their bodies; it was illegal for them to take the contraceptive pill. And the State regulated whether they could work or not; before 1973 the marriage ban precluded them from gainful employment post-wedding. They did not have the same options or freedoms – either socially, morally or legally – as their male counterparts who, for the most part, were the power holders in what was a very patriarchal society. Although men do cite historic struggles of their own – having to work all the hours, trying to provide for their families, feeling redundant when they retired – it is clear from our research that life in Ireland for women of a certain age could, at times, be very difficult. Not surprising then that women aged 60+ are the least convinced ‘that things were better back in the day when men went to work and women took care of the kids at home’ (traditional men are the most likely to agree) and far more likely to believe that ‘their lives will be different to their parents’. Not only are women in this age group seemingly less traditional than the men, but interestingly, they seem to have more in common with Millennials when it comes to some opinions on sex, marriage and gender equality. And so it’s not surprising that those women aged 60+ are relatively excited about the evolving family structure and society in Ireland. In some respects they seem as pro-social change as those far younger than themselves, albeit still a little hesitant about whether or not Ireland is ready for these differences to be reflected back at us (e.g. more overt references to gay couples in ads).
Claire Clifford is Strategic Planner
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