What will millennials do with the old?
Let me tell you the story of my dad’s 75th birthday.
Harry, he’s called. An old man’s name. You can picture what he looks like with a name like that. How he holds a pint. How he sits in a chair. There’s a predictability to a Harry. When the Zack’s and Tyler’s of Generation Z become wrinkly and decrepit it’s going to feel a little weird. I couldn’t imagine Harry with a fucking neck tattoo.
I don’t think I ever considered Harry to be old, though; he didn’t disintegrate too much physically, he wasn’t overly forgetful and he never lost his sharpness in conversation. In fact, getting people stupider than him to be quiet was a party trick he enjoyed rolling out every now and again. He had the barbs if the situation called for it no matter who was going to be on the other end. He’d sit there with the newspaper in hand, tapping his glasses case, just waiting for the appropriate moment to insert a comment that would make everyone shut the hell up. It also made many people, myself included, consider him to be what can only be defined as, a cunt. Sometimes ‘cunt’ is the only word that applies to a person’s behaviour, and he had the acute ability to be a quite perfect cunt to anyone and everyone.
It’s also one of the reasons why I didn’t plan anything extravagant to commemorate the milestone. Turning 75 now is not so much of a birthday as a final reckoning. A cunt enduring his last moments on Earth; in such awkward circumstances, I wanted to keep the spectacle to a minimum. I can say I tried.
My sister dropped around at 3pm, deliberately leaving it until the last possible moment to make her entrance. My father had been out in the garden most of the morning, pottering around and doing his level best to keep engagement with either my wife or I as low as possible. He’d perk up a little for my young daughters, probably because he felt obliged to, but other than that his mini-break in our house had passed with barely a word being uttered. My sister went out to strike up a conversation and I watched from the kitchen window as he continued to stare directly forward, as if frozen in time, while she danced around him, wagging fingers and, eventually, inevitably, crying. She burst back in, making it about her as was her speciality, so I nodded to my wife to placate her as I went outside in the vain attempt to end this life in as civil a way as possible.
I was irritated at his obduracy considering the circumstances that led us, all of us, to this point. There would have been a time when he would have openly conceded that his generation ruined things. He was the archetypal 1950’s baby boomer, one who avoided the horrors of the Second World War and then revelled in the benefits of the social and economic reconstruction that followed. He enjoyed a full life in every way; he was comfortably looked after as an engineer all the way through to pension age, the NHS catered to his needs free of charge, and he enjoyed a mostly stable and predictable climate. Because of the decade in which he was born he sidestepped the catastrophes that gave our generation virtually no chance of success as we stared into the abyss of our futures.
We always looked after our old folks, and there’s an obvious reason for that — we would one day be old ourselves and we were draped in fear of what would happen to us when we got there. Mental images of lonely, isolated existences chained together by meaningless walks to the shop to converse with another living soul. Flashes-forward to empty wallets, unpaid heating bills and cupboards filled with tins of the cheapest soup available in Lidl. Morbid obsessions of being found dead weeks after the fact, with no-one around to announce your passing. It was better to take the hit and look after the old with our tax revenue, just for the associated piece of mind.
And for a lot of us, that was the way it could have stayed. Harry’s baby boomers were the lucky ones. They got the plum draw, with the plague and genocide to the left of them, mass unemployment, financial collapse and environmental ruin to the right. And we would have accepted it, if people like Harry here weren’t so fucking entitled along with it.
As I sidled towards my father standing stoically in the garden of my house, I couldn’t help but murmur under my breath: Fuck you, Harry.
Harry and the baby boomers had the chance to share the wealth, to vote differently, to opt for the good of the unfortunates rather than clinging to self-preservation for as long as possible as the rest of us picked up the bill. They didn’t want to help other generations enjoy the benefits they received. They wanted us to know that they had ‘paid their dues’. Worked all their lives. Now, you look after us, on our terms. I know this about my father because he had told me thus so many times, as we struggled, living a transient existence, desperate to get work by any means necessary in a crumbling order that hadn’t decided what to do with its people when all the jobs were done better, and cheaper, by machines. I would ask him for advice, for assistance, and he would dismiss me as being symptomatic of modern culture where, if people weren’t handed things on a plate, they would curl up and die. Yeah, a cunt, Harry. But one indicative of an entirely alien species, one protected from the travails of my existence and our current way of living. Fuck you, Harry.
My wife and I and everyone we knew could relate to the Harry’s out there and the pressure that was on all of us to forge some semblance of normal life. So they really should have seen the backlash coming as they sat on their tax-funded pensions while ten million families spiralled into debt and detonated the financial institutions at the same time. They didn’t get it, this wasn’t a credit crunch, with irrational spending on things people didn’t need; the spending on credit cards and loans and payday lenders was wholly necessary to survive. We suffered, badly, and all Harry could do was remind me that he had ‘respected the system’. We got sick and tired of hearing phrases like that.
When the tax paying members of society aren’t in work, there isn’t any tax to generate and so we couldn’t keep up with the state pension contributions to the ageing population. The young had nothing while the old expected to be catered for until their last breath, and given general medical advances had improved so much, we created a situation where reaching ninety years of age was a statistical norm. Thus, the NHS was obliterated. It reached crisis levels in the mid-2010’s and it didn’t stand a chance. No money, no space for the elderly explosion. What to be done with those who were taking everything out and contributing effectively nothing in return?
We had had enough of our miserable, penniless, directionless existence while they could drive to Marks and Spencer and tend to their gardens. We demanded an alternative. We wanted a referendum. The government gave it to us.
And because my wife, sister and I voted Yes in Referendum 75, Harry wasn’t much in the mood for talking to us. The bill passed emphatically. Anyone older than 75 was contacted by the Senior Termination Unit and got a month grace period to prepare for their one-way trip. In September 2025, the state euthanized five million pensioners and now the process operates efficiently. They come and collect you 75 years after the date on your birth certificate, and that’s the end of it. You don’t need to arrange it, and you can try and avoid it all you like — they will find you.
They tried to humanise the process a little by adding stipulations, most notably allowing septuagenarians of scientific or cultural importance to apply for a licence. They must prove their existence to make it, and there’s not too many of them being handed reprieves. Conventional civilians, meanwhile, could ‘bank’ years, and provide them to a nominated person if they failed to make it to the magic number. The system works.
I imagine most 16–60-year old’s who were permitted to vote have one or two moments, particularly when it affects them directly, when they deliberate over whether it was the right call. But it only takes a brief reminder of the previous misery, and the ignorance of the man who brought me into the world as if it was his to create and destroy, to know we were correct. Fuck you, Harry.
I didn’t have time for needless small talk and frankly, neither did he, so I frogmarched him from the garden back into the house and sat him down in the dining room in front of his favourite chocolate cake, the one with the orange filling. I shoved a big fat candle on top that looked like a wax rocket, for what purpose, I’m not even sure. But we lit the thing and the five of us gathered around him, dressed in our Sunday best, trying to show respect to someone who barely deserved it. My daughters were too naïve to know what was going on, so it was left to the three remaining adults to exchange cracked smiles and darting gazes.
Harry was at the side of the cake as I lit the fuse and he didn’t look happy because, well, why would he? But despite the precariousness of the atmosphere, my sister still insisted on having the moment, bursting into a hysterical fit as my father leaned forward to blow out the flame. She was reacting as if she didn’t know this was coming, as if it wasn’t something she had voted for, as if there was another way and I was forcing him into this. Whatever. I knew she would disappear again soon to wherever it is she spends her days so I let her moan away and exit the room dramatically. Harry remained silent, stern, and unmoved throughout.
After my sister had exited and he’d blown out the candle, there was a prolonged silence where I was expecting him to say something. Anything. After all, this was it. He could have shown contrition for his life and what became of it. But nothing came, and I felt obliged to not leave us all standing there, so, I stood up and announced, ‘Harry — drink?’ before heading into the kitchen to pour a large Glenmorangie over ice. I should have won an Oscar for the way in which I appeared genuine, but my eye was on the clock the entire time, hoping the Senior Termination Unit would arrive at 4pm as scheduled to put him, and us, out of our collective misery.
He once told me he thought he had had a good life. He cited his long marriage to my mother, their stable earnings, their suburban existence. All things directly correlated to the good fortune of his birth. But what is a good life? I never approached the subject with him. Did he still think the same way now, after everything? I had a feeling he did, the bastard.
3.45pm arrived, as we desperately tried to eke out those final moments as painlessly as possible. As the minutes ticked onwards the silences lingered longer and dad’s brow became more furrowed. Thank god for the girls playing on the floor or else it would have felt like the green mile. I could see the resentment building in him. As the clock ticked on it felt like he wanted to speak but the words were stuck just underneath his tongue and he couldn’t wrestle them out. My wife and I kept looking at each other, then back at him, then at my sister, who had taken to playing with the girls, as is her default when she doesn’t want to get involved.
My mind flipped back in time to earlier in the week. We stood together out front as the estate agent handed the keys to his house, the one he’d lived in with my mother for forty years, to a young family. I put my arm around him but, just like now, neither of us particularly wanted to break the wall between us, so we just stared at the family, dad, mum, two boys, two dogs, until they went inside and shut the door.
He knew that I had already put the rest of his belongings up for auction, fishing gear, golf clubs, leisurely stuff that I’ve never had time or money for. It was all sitting in my hallway, no longer his, now mine to do what I wanted with. I admit it must have been emasculating for him, but I was more concerned that this was the entirety of his legacy to his children after a supposed good life.
With his house gone we put him up here for the last few days. When he crossed the threshold, dragging his mini-suitcase containing the only things he still owns, he disappeared upstairs into the spare room before closing the door and there he remained for most of the time. I left him to it.
But sitting in that situation, watching the seconds edge painfully past I realised that he had been building up to something, ruthlessly looking for the right words to define the last conversation we would ever have.
And I realised that I was, too. I wondered how much more money there could have been for us if he had saved efficiently after all those years being fortunate enough to work, or in his retirement if he had contributed to his family rather than stupid hobbies, and even as I counted down the moments until his death my cynicism grew. Did he throw savings away rather than keep it for us? When mum was alive I’m sure she would have retained a nest egg, but when the Senior Termination Unit, the same one that was a few minutes away from returning, came for her I let him be reckless with his money in the aftermath, taking pity on him, and I felt like he had exploited that fact.
3.50pm. As he swirled the ice cubes in the whisky glass, careful not to look at anyone or anything longer than a few seconds, I realised I didn’t care what he had to say. The answer had no consequence to me. If he was suffering fear over what was to come, then he was experiencing a mere morsel of what we had been through.
It was easy to recall how he had never been there for me throughout my life. When I was shipping my family all around the country to find work in an economy that found me to be an anachronism, He did nothing. He sat back in comfort while we fought every day to create any kind of life for ourselves.
3.52pm. He continued to sit there, being evasive.
Fuck you, Harry. I went deeper inside my head, hoping to telepathically send him a message in these last seconds, one that could possibly make him feel even worse. It’s not me making this decision, you bastard, it’s all of us who were done with our lives being ruined by the most selfish generation ever. Seventy-five is as far as this life extends, Harry. There are no special stipulations for a guy like you. You haven’t contributed to making our society a better place, so you don’t qualify for exemption. You are just as worthless as the twelve million others we’ve culled, their decaying bodies shipped into the euthanasia clinics and burned. I wanted to tell him that I had done this already with mum and that was much harder. This time the guilt won’t take long to wear off. You’ve had chips in the game longer than you’ve had any right to. Your usefulness is negligible. A strain. A drain. We should go younger. 74. 72. 70. It’s better for those that remain to have the stress taken from their shoulders and their resources and their wallets.
Seventy-five. That’s it. It will be the same for me, too, and I’m ready for it. I find it liberating. I know how long I have and I plan every day to that timeline.
3.55pm, and I realised I hadn’t thought it, but said it. I’d produced a monologue three years in the making, how I hated him for making me do this, making us do this, if they had just been more respectful of what we had in front of us, of our resources, of making the decisions that would allow us to be better equipped to move forward.
My wife and sister tried to interrupt and the girls stopped playing but I kept going. What financial security had he left us? You were never there for me, dad. Things could have been so different. Our lives could have been so much easier.
Finally, I told him that if he wanted me to apologise for what was about to happen, I said I wouldn’t do it, that none of us would.
3.57pm and he remained motionless. Eventually, he swirled the whisky one more time and took a hearty slug, leaving the little ice cubes to melt away in the bottom of the empty glass.
3.58pm. Harry got up, slowly, and went out to the hallway. I wasn’t willing to let him leave so easily. I told him to come back, that I wouldn’t let them take him away without a response to what I had said. Just before I got up to chase after him, he returned to the living room with his suitcase dragging behind him.
3.59pm. He opened a zip on the front of the case and handed me a brown envelope. He gripped one side of it as he passed it to me and stared directly into my eyes.
‘They aren’t coming,’ he said. He turned away and walked towards the front door.
‘Who isn’t coming? Harry, what do you mean? Harry, get back here!’ I chased him to the front door, where there was a car waiting outside. A woman I have never seen before was positioned behind the wheel.
He strolled towards the passenger side of the car as I screamed from my doorstep, asking him where the hell he was going. He threw his suitcase into the back seat, threw himself into the front, and the woman sped away.
I still had the letter he gave me scrunched in my hand. I unfurled it and inside was confirmation from the Senior Termination Unit that they would not be visiting today as scheduled to collect Harry William Smith. Harry William Smith, it transpired, had been transferred an additional ten years from a woman who wished to remain anonymous for the purposes of this correspondence, but had banked them when her husband died at the age of 65.
Harry had gamed the system one last time. He wasn’t finished taking advantage of us. As I passed the note to my wife to read, one solitary piece of paper fell to the ground in front of me.
It was Harry’s handwriting.
‘Fuck you, son.’