A demographic revolution is under way, with more of us living longer than ever before. Fifty years ago there were nearly 20 million people in the world age 80 or over; now that figure stands at about 105 million, and it’s rising fast. Many – though not enough – of our older population are in good health and will retire with a decent income and a strong social network, and many have much to offer society.
The timing of the debate around the aging population in the UK is then perhaps unfortunate, held as it is against a backdrop of a beleaguered economy. Since the Coalition Government came to power we have seen cuts to government services and working-age benefits and a further £10 billion reduction in welfare to come. Against this context there is a perception that older people have fared better than most other groups but media commentary suggesting that today’s older people belong to “the lucky generation” obscure the enormous variations that exist. This is particularly stark in terms of poverty and wealth – fewer than half of all retirees have an income big enough to pay income tax. Older people’s median income levels remain lower than those of the population as a whole.
At the same time, there are crucial areas where action is needed to help some of the most vulnerable older people. We’re waiting anxiously for a spending commitment from the Government to tackle our spiralling social care crisis. In the meantime, we estimate more than 800,000 older people who need care are struggling without any formal help. Many others are spending nearly every penny they have to pay for care. At the same time, an overhaul of our complicated pension system is long overdue and we’re currently awaiting the introduction of a flat-rate pension, promising to make our system fairer and simpler.
Despite this, the tactic of blaming our ageing population for fiscal pressure is becoming all too common. But recent projections from the UK Office for Budgetary Responsibility that appear to support this view are inappropriately based on a simple multiplication of demographic change and existing expenditure and ignore the impact that policy could have – for example, focusing our health and care systems away from crisis management and towards prevention could offer cost-effective measures that promote independence and active aging.
Beyond this, we need to invest in our ageing population, take a life course approach, end age discrimination, encourage employers to optimise the skills of an ageing workforce, and help people to plan and save for retirement.
For Age UK there are challenges too. Massive spending cuts have huge implications for how we design, promote, fund, and implement our charitable services. We also have a part to play in helping to shift public perceptions of ageing and encourage people to see that the decisions they make in all areas of their life today can affect how they grow older.
The global population will continue to age—a tremendous cause for celebration. We need to help decision makers and individuals to take bold decisions now to enable us all to enjoy the many benefits that longer lives can bring.
This blog is a shortened version of a longer article by Michelle Mitchell which appears in AARP’s publication, The Journal (2013 print edition).