The global population is older than it has ever been. But the grey brigade could provide a new era of productivity and hope for the world, writes Oliver Haenlein.
In 2008, the number of people aged 65 and over in the UK was around 10 million; by 2031, however, there will be 16 million. Globally, the amount of over 65s is projected to almost double over the next 20 years, from around 600 million to more than one billion.
This is fundamentally down to a simple combination of increasing life expectancy and decreasing fertility rates. The most audible reactions tend to be bleak – a growing proportion of dependents relying on a shrinking working population, slowing growth and productivity, sky rocketing pension costs, and a society groaning under the weight of growing social and health care demands. John Read, research associate with the Cathie Marsh Institute for Social Research, told the Guardian that state pension costs could on current trends increase to £115bn by 2033, £172bn in 2033/4 and £415bn by 2063/4.
Populations are ageing fastest in Japan and Western Europe, but sociology professor at the University of Manchester, James Nazroo, tells Salt that “it’s happening everywhere and governments around the world are worrying about it”.
Dr Athina Vlachantoni, of the ESRC Centre for Population Change, and associate professor in gerontology at Southampton University’s Centre for Research on Ageing, outlines her concerns: “The tricky bit is many of these (elderly people) are not expected to be in good health. With every generation the rate of ‘health life expectancy’ is slower. The proportion of that extra time you can expect to live in good health is smaller.”
Meanwhile, Zanny Minton Beddoes from The Economist, believes that as the population ages, we can expect inequalities within the elderly demographic to grow: “People are not actually stopping work at the traditional retirement age, and there’s a very clear schism between highly skilled people, who tend to work for longer, and low skilled people who don’t…In the wake of rapid technological change people with skills have done much better.” She says this is translated into 60 per cent of men with degrees aged between 62–74 being in work in the US, compared to just 30 per cent of people with just high school education.
Another worry is the potential for older workers to save for longer, as opposed to the traditional model of dissaving during retirement, and consequently passing on increased wealth to children. This not only creates a higher concentration of wealth, but could also stunt economic demand.
The challenges are obvious, and it’s hard not to be daunted by some of the projections. However, experts not only see solutions to these problems, but even opportunities within them to help build a better society. Manchester University’s Nazroo believes we should look to “maximise the opportunities instead of minimalising the damage”.
Many believe that the task in hand is manageable, as well as having the potential to create positive change. Vlachantoni tells Salt: “I don’t think there’s a need to be concerned as long as some steps are made to adjust over time and society views it positively; it’s about finding ways. For example, finding ways of keeping older people in the labour market longer, and using their experience. It’s a fallacy that older people need to move on to make room for younger people. It’s about finding a way to make the most of their skills.”
The developing inequalities within the older demographic allow governments the opportunity to close the gap. Nazroo says “there are clear opportunities to alleviate inequality”.
We could, he adds, look at what’s impacting negatively and advancing inequalities, both in health and money. This could mean both pension reform and housing reform, investing in skills, and taking a closer look at the disparity in health. Obesity is prevalent in poorer areas of society, so there’s an opportunity to regulate, as was done with the tobacco industry, to protect the more vulnerable from the food industry.
Vlachantoni believes the biggest role of the welfare state is to smooth these inequalities, creating a minimum below which no one should fall.
“One way of smoothening is to ensure that everyone has an occupational pension, and ensure that basic services such as the NHS and social care are provided and not rationed,” she adds.
Government policy will clearly be vital in defining how well we deal with an ageing population. Age UK believes that despite times of austerity, there remains the potential to be creative with the money that there is.
Woudhuysen says the way forward is “joining up social and health care and making sure that central government, local government and the third sector are working together to improve the lives of older people”.
The current allocation of funds in social care, concentrated on the most extreme cases, is too short-termist, and one solution is to review this, according to Vlachantoni: “In the long term people with moderate needs, if they’re not given help, will come back to they system later, costing even more. This is an opportunity to focus on more moderate needs with social care.”
She also sees an opportunity in ethnic integration amongst the elderly. By 2051 we will have around four million over 65s from ethnic minority backgrounds. The profiles of older people vary between different ethnic groups. For example, Bangladeshi and Pakistani groups are more likely to report ill health but less likely to use formal services. Barriers include language and cultural differences, and there is a need and an opportunity there to break these barriers down, to make services more accessible.
Sir Ian Diamond, principal at the University of Aberdeen, rejects a negative picture. “For me it’s just good news, we are going to live longer. But we need to make sure we are able to inform people about the changes they need to make to maximise the chance of it being a healthy ageing, and the support of community and government to promote positive health.”
He describes an “exciting” opportunity for research and development to create mechanisms that enable healthy ageing; ‘smart housing’ for example, which will allow people to live in their homes for longer.
“There need to be R&D tax credits to encourage companies to invest, and government procurement must encourage innovation. We need the research that will enable us to ensure we have healthy and productive societies.”
The university principal says the government has a role to play in promoting wellbeing, and ensuring workers are paying into pensions from as young an age as possible. He also believes that as working ages get higher, the government could create more flexible working arrangements to make the most of this, for example, more part-time positions.
The picture we are often painted is of the elderly being a burden, and an ageing population therefore creating a heavier weight to bear for the rest of society. However, there is much to be gained from this demographic shift, according to experts.
Vlachantoni believes in the value of improved intergenerational relations and having more contact between people of different ages. Southampton University’s Centre for Research on Ageing collaborated with London’s Young Vic theatre in a project that aimed to highlight the importance of these relations; children performed, using the words of older people, in a play called ‘On Ageing’.
“This contact could solve a lot of problems, showing kids where they will be in the future and transferring skills,” Vlachantoni adds. She also agrees with Age UK’s Woudhuysen, who says that alongside their capacity to work later in life, there are increasing opportunities for the elderly to support grandchildren and other family members, freeing up their own children to contribute more to the labour market. This kind of contribution benefits both society and the economy, as does the older demographic’s propensity for volunteer work, Woodhuysen says. “They are fitter and more able and have an increased capacity to give back to society, providing a service to be recognised.”
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