The fact that we can now expect to live longer than ever before is, of course, a huge blessing – but it’s a mixed one in terms of the social and economic ramifications an ageing population will bring. Jennifer Lipman explores the significance of falling birth rates and improved medical care…
Britain is getting older. Thanks to falling birth rates, smaller families, improved healthcare and better living standards, we’re going grey. It’s not as significant here as in, say, Japan, but some 18 in one hundred of us are at pension age, and the proportion is rising. In the past decade, the number of over-85s has increased by 31%.
For many, it’s great news. “This is basically a sign of progress: less people dying prematurely and a falling birth rate,” says Alan Walker, Director of Sheffield University’s New Dynamics of Ageing Programme. It means more time to enjoy retirement, more years with the great-grandchildren. Countries with older populations tend to be better off on most socioeconomic markers; as Judith Phillips, Professor of Gerontology at Stirling University, stresses, living longer should be celebrated. “It’s a particular indicator of the success of medical advances.”
Equally true is the fact that pensioners contribute to the economy in innumerable ways, including as consumers and by caring for grandchildren. The spending power of the over-50s was a key factor in the UK’s economic recovery, explains Lisa Harris from Saga. “Spending by this age-group is more effective in creating jobs for the young.”
The silver age isn’t all silver linings, though. It presents numerous challenges that we need to prepare for: not least that the longer we live, the more we’re going to need in our piggy banks. But successive governments have not been good at future-proofing the pensions system, and, with fewer working-age people, pots are only getting smaller. “Pensions and retirement income are going to be very much something for future generations... to take on more responsibility for,” says Michelle Cracknell, Chief Executive of the Pensions Advisory Service. Mostly, she says, it’s about understanding the need to save for retirement.
Our pensions system was based on the expectation that people died in their seventies, not their nineties. A Government report due this spring is likely to recommend raising the retirement age. But already, over the past five years, employment for the over-50s has risen faster than for younger workers. There are now some 1.21m workers over 65.
In truth, we need them to stay in work anyway and not just because it alleviates pressure on pension funds. As a country we are facing enormous skills shortages, worsened by the fact that fewer people are entering the jobs market than leaving it, and a Government review concluded that enabling older people into employment could boost the economy by £25bn annually.
Contrary to what has sometimes been claimed, this doesn’t necessarily hurt job opportunities for young employees. “Where you have high older people employment you usually have high youth employment,” says Sarah Vickerstaff, Professor of Work and Employment at the University of Kent. “It’s about the health of the economy overall.”
Nevertheless, it does raise questions. Anna Dixon, Chief Executive of the Centre for Ageing Better, highlights the importance of training, and the need for individuals and businesses to plan for a future where grandma and grandson are working together. “We need to think about the pattern of our working lives including the potential to work for longer, retrain, or work more flexibly.”
It also requires an attitude change: no more stereotyping older people as ‘past it’. “Fewer younger people means that employers must make better use of the older ones instead of trying to jettison them,” Walker says.
Yet framing working for longer as ‘a choice’ can miss the point – it isn’t always feasible. “Some people’s health has started to run out well before they reach pension age,” says Vickerstaff. “Some would like to work longer but can’t find work. There are big challenges around how people carry on working. Good work is very good for your health, but not stressful work.”
A shift towards a system where people work on into their eighties may also mean more days lost to sickness, and therefore a need for a rethink around sick leave, or employers accommodating flexible schedules. As people age, many acquire caring responsibilities, either for elderly parents or for grandchildren – or, indeed, both. “Working longer is not just an individual decision,” Vickerstaff emphasises.
There is similar concern around housing. With the younger generation struggling to get on the housing ladder, much blame is directed at baby boomers holding on to their homes. But Harris argues that Stamp Duty discourages downsizing, and that appropriate housing for older people has not been a priority. “In many areas planning permission is being given to convert bungalows to houses and any focus on homes for older people seems to be on flats,” she says. But small flats, with little outdoor space and no parking, “simply don’t inspire people to want to move”.
This is part of a wider conversation around not simply ageing, but ageing well. As Vickerstaff points out, “we are quite good at prolonging life but not at prolonging healthy life. We prolong the years when we are at our most frail.” Many older people, especially from deprived backgrounds, are living with disability, chronic illness and other debilitating conditions like dementia.
Healthcare – and the corresponding pressure on adult social care – is undoubtedly the biggest short-term challenge as more Britons reach old age. You can barely open a paper without reading a doomsday tale of an NHS and care system in crisis. The need for more GPs, more care homes and care workers in the community, and better palliative care, is only set to grow.
According to The King’s Fund, the funding gap within the adult social care system will reach at least £2.8bn by 2019. In December, the Government permitted councils to increase the social care precept (an additional council tax charge ringfenced for the costs of adult social care services), but Dixon thinks this will make little difference; meanwhile, “those who have modest means can face catastrophic costs if they need long-term care”. She stresses that funding reforms are needed.
Related to that is the type of care on offer: for example, enabling people to stay in their own homes, or providing high-quality care homes, and responding to the different needs of different groups. As a Friends of the Elderly spokesperson explains, male life expectancy is rising – meaning more married couples will live longer together – and care homes will need to cater to this.
In contrast, estimates suggest that by 2030 there will be two million childless over-65s, raising the spectre of isolation becoming commonplace. “Loneliness is one of the biggest challenges facing people as they grow older,” they say, noting that it can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s, heart disease and stroke, and can lead to depression. Identifying strategies to combat loneliness is vital, especially given that, as people live longer, the generation down from them may simultaneously be of limited mobility.
Ageing well in the context of an expanding ageing population is also about society valuing this group, rather than indulging a generational blame game, where the young bemoan their tax receipts funding a healthcare system few think will last until they need it. Angela Broadbridge, deputy CEO of the Older People’s Advocacy Alliance, complains of the “common narrative” of older people overwhelming health and social care, and being ‘too needy, too frail, too dependent and a burden’. “This kind of prejudice robs older people of voice, choice and control,” she warns.
“The media always focus on the challenges and the costs and intergenerational inequity,” agrees Phillips. She says we need to value their wisdom much more. “Life experience and what knowledge and skills that they have got to offer is downplayed.”
What’s clear is that planning ahead – on housing, bolstering health services and preventative care – will be critical. Yet Phillips worries that the message to politicians, business and the public hasn’t really got through, as governments avoid making tough and potentially unpopular decisions. Brexit may force them to do so, not least because the care sector is heavily dependent on EU workers.
Whatever happens – and who’d make a prediction nowadays? – there’s no doubt that, as individuals, we must shoulder some responsibility for our twilight years. “We need to manage our finances with foresight. And of course try and stay healthy and fit, think about where we’ll live; and how we’ll keep active and make a contribution,” says Dixon.
Equally, we must face up to Britain’s ageing population as a real, pressing issue, which brings challenges but also riches. As Harris says, a mark of a civilised society is based around how we treat the elderly and vulnerable.