What does Britain’s ageing population mean for the future?

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16 November
13:02
November
2016

In line with almost all countries, Britain’s population is ageing. Currently about 18% of the population are aged 65 and over. However between 2015 and 2020, over a period when the general population is expected to rise 3%, the numbers aged over 65 are expected to increase by 12% (1.1 million); the numbers aged over 85 by 18% (300,000); and the number of centenarians by 40% (7,000). This demographic change has caused alarm amongst many commentators who present apocalyptic forecasts of societies drowning under the weight of a silver tsunami. However, whilst population ageing does bring with it many challenges, which I will cover later, it also raises a wide range of opportunities. Thus it is important to look at both the positive and potentially negative aspects of population ageing when assessing what the impact is likely to be. This is further complicated by the fact that ageing is a complex issue which touches on so many aspects of our daily lives and social institutions. Therefore, rather than try to assess the impact of population ageing across all dimensions, I will focus on what are perhaps the three most commonly raised issues: 1) Health and healthcare, 2) Work and retirement, and 3) Politics.

However, before we start, it is important to note some important points about the causes of population ageing: 

  • Firstly, due to the often negative language used about older people it is easy to forget that we should celebrate population ageing as a major social achievement. Today, many more people can enjoy a long and active life than they did in the past. Fewer and fewer people are dying prematurely from treatable diseases. This is something that we should be proud of.
  • Secondly, it is important to differentiate between individual ageing and population ageing. Individual ageing, or life expectancy is a measure of how long a person lives or can expect to live. This has been rising fairly steadily since the middle of the last century. However, population ageing refers to the ageing of the population. This is usually measured by the proportion of people aged over a specific age, eg 65 years. It is also sometimes measured by the median age of the population. Although this has also been on the rise over the same period of time, the causes are somewhat different. Certainly more people living longer will increase the number of older people, but not necessarily the proportion of older people in the population. In fact, falling fertility rates are a key driver of population ageing. Currently two-thirds of the world’s countries now have fertility rates near or below replacement level.
  • Migration is another major factor in the demographic make-up of any society. For example, following the Great Famine in Ireland many younger people emigrated to the United States. The result of which was that the Irish population prematurely aged.

Thus it is important to recognise that the causes of population ageing are as complex as the consequences.

Now we will turn to the consequences:

1) Health and healthcare

One of the greatest concerns is that population ageing will result in an unmanageable burden of ill health in the population which will in turn put immense strain on out National Health Service. Whilst it is true that older people are, on average, more likely to have poorer health or a chronic condition than younger people there are a number of reasons why we should be wary of such forecasts. Firstly, not only has life expectancy risen but so too has healthy life expectancy. Although there are some concerns that increases in healthy life expectancy have not kept pace with life expectancy it is true that it is not just the number of years of life that have increased but the number of years in good health too. This is often used as evidence to support what is called the compression of morbidity argument. Simply put this states that as people live longer then the proportion of their lives that they will spend in ill health will decrease. Indeed there seems to be good evidence to support this from a number of countries, although not all.

Secondly, as the population has aged it has become much more diverse. Hence there are many people living longer today in much better health than in previous generations. One of the reasons for this is that the people entering later life today lived through very different times than their parents’ generation. They had better working conditions, a free health service and tended to have fewer poor health behaviours, such as smoking. Hence it is now no longer rare for us to see people in their 70s, 80s, or 90s running marathons, climbing mountains or undertaking other physical feats. Conversely, we can all probably think of someone in their 30s or 40s with poor health. Indeed, a recent study, carried out by researchers from Duke University and other research centres in the US, UK, Israel and New Zealand, found that 'biological age' was poorly related to chronological age. Those people who had a higher biological age than their chronological age, i.e. who were seen to be ‘ageing’ prematurely, tended to be the ones who tended to have poorer physical and cognitive abilities. This fits what we already know about inequalities in health at all ages and especially in later life. Those in the least advantageous positions tend to have the worst health and die younger than those who are better off. This is actually good news as it means that there are things that can be done before we reach later life to ensure that we have good health for longer. By reducing inequalities, ensuring people have a good education and a good job and by promoting good health behaviours, such as diet, exercise and stopping smoking we can seriously reduce the burden of ill health in later life. This means we can stay active, continue to contribute to society, enjoy live and not put a cost on the health service. 

2) Work and retirement

The second major area that causes many people concern is the economic implications of an ageing workforce and increased numbers of pensioners. Currently in the UK around 55% of welfare spending (£114bn in 2014/15) is currently paid to pensioners, with the state pension by far the largest element of this. This expenditure is forecast to increase by an average of £2.8 billion a year over the next five years, resulting in spending of £128 billion by 2019/20. This issue is further aggravated by the fact that the working population is expected to decline relative to the number of pensioners. This is often referred to as the ‘dependency ratio’. This is a real issue.

However, again we should critical about accepting this at face value. Firstly, the concept of the dependency ratio is actually a measure of the number of people of working age to those of non-working age. This includes both retirees and children. Hence, as we have already noted falling fertility rates mean that there will be fewer children that need to be supported by people in work. Thus this will reduce some of the burden. Secondly, the number of pensioners should not be seen as a natural part of population ageing. Governments set state pension ages and part of the reason why we had relatively low levels of labour market participation in later life in the 1990s was because the government at the time made it much easier to get early retirement due to the fact that we had high unemployment rates at the time. In fact, governments across Europe have now closed down many of these ‘early exit’ pathways and are also rising the state retirement age. In the UK the state pension age used to be 65 for men and 60 for women. Between April 2016 and November 2018, State Pension age for women will increase gradually to 65 and then between December 2018 and October 2020 the State Pension age for men and women will increase gradually to 66. From 2020, both men and women's state pension age will be 66, increasing to 67 between 2026 and 2028, and then linked to life expectancy after that. In conjuncture with this there is a new policy push to encourage extended or fuller working lives to encourage people to work up to or even beyond the state pension age. One such policy was the scrapping of the default retirement age in 2011. Before that an employer could to make staff retire at 65 regardless of their circumstances. Partly in response to that, many older workers are working for longer, often taking ‘bridge jobs’ or becoming self-employed later in their careers. However, although this is a positive development, there are many who are unable to continue working, due to health problems or caring responsibilities. Also there are concerns that many older workers feel that they are forced into these new work roles, notably self-employment, that are often insecure and lack employment protection. So when thinking about the ‘need’ for people to stay in work for longer we need to be aware of the different working lives that people have had, e.g. can we really expect a miner and an executive to continue working for the same number of years, as well as the other demands that people face as they age, e.g. caring for others. 

3) Politics

Finally, to quickly discuss the concerns that are sometimes raised that an ageing population will lead to the emergence of a ‘grey block’ of voters who will divert resources away from other age groups to themselves. This argument has gained a particularly nasty new lease of life following the EU referendum vote in the UK and the Presidential election in the US. In both cases older voters were blamed for voting for what were considered to be less progressive alternative. In the UK sections of the media and various commentators were very vocal, arguing that the older generation had stolen the future of the younger generation by voting to leave the European Union. This argument feeds into a growing ‘generation blame’ rhetoric seeking to pit older and younger groups against each other. Not only is this dangerous, it is wrong.

Analysis of both the EU referendum and the Trump election show that age is only one of many factors that influenced people’s voting, and not even a particularly important factor. Education was by far a bigger factor as well as the state of the local economy. Just like all age groups the older people are a very diverse group, representing a wide range of interests and experiences. Perhaps this is even more the case if we consider that ‘older people’ is often used to mean anyone over 65. Yet this is a huge age range, including people in their late 90s or 100s. So just as we would seriously question any attempt to group together everyone aged 0-30 we should also be critical of attempts to group all older people together.

In short, it is very difficult to assess what the impact of population ageing will be for the UK, or any country. Population ageing is an incredibly complex phenomenon and one that is continually evolving. Life expectancy continues to increase at a faster rate than was predicted and the nature of the older population changes as new cohorts enter later life with different lifetime experiences and expectations. Moreover many of the presumed issues of population ageing and not the ‘natural’ outcomes of demographic change but are the result of decisions taken by people. The setting of the retirement age is a political decision. The low levels of child support and elder care in this country, relative to Sweden for example, mean that many people (usually women) have to take time off work. The state of the economy and the cost of housing means that many people feel that they are unable to start a family and are delaying having children. Moreover, when we look at the things that worry people about population ageing, namely health and employment issues, we see that these are not problems that simply emerge in later life but begin to occur much earlier in the lifecourse. All of which should give us hope. Population ageing does raise a number of real challenges. But there are solutions to these problems, improving health, education and work for all would eliminate many of the concerns that people have. This would free us from the negative and damaging stereotypes of older people and scare-mongering associated with population ageing and allow us to celebrate this as one of humanity’s greatest achievements and to value the benefits that older people bring to society. 

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