Author Archives: José Luis Iparraguirre

On the myth of age and voting intentions

The other day I caught myself singing “it’s just one of those myths…” to the well-known song by Cole Porter which actually goes “it’s just one those things”. I wondered whether it had been a Freudian slip, until I realised it had to do with the many ‘myths’ which we, at Age UK, have set about to demolish and are charging against daily. ‘Older people this’, ‘population ageing that’. One of these myths is that the age of voters is, by and large, related with their political preferences.

It is usually voiced that it’s the relatively older voters who tip the balance in the General Elections in the UK, for the turnout among those over 55 is bigger than that of under-25s. Whereas this is true, the relation between age and voting intentions is often overlooked – it is simply accepted as a matter of ‘fact’ that such a relation exists: “older voters tend to go for the Conservatives”, for example.

Obviously, we don’t actually know how people finally vote, but we do know what they said they intended to vote shortly before each election –thanks to Ipsos-Mori, which has been collecting these data over the last 30 years. And thus I could test whether there has been any statistical association between age and voting intentions for the three main political parties (plus a fourth catch-all category, ‘other’) since the 1987 General Election – for previous years, the breakdown of the data by age varies. For this purpose I used a fairly common statistical test: the chi-square test of independence, which I’m sure you either know a lot about or do not want to know anything of right now, so I’m going to omit any details here. Continue reading

Reading too much into the label?

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) recently published a paper claiming that ‘households receiving the winter fuel payment are almost 14 times as likely to spend the money on fuel than would have been the case had their incomes been increased in other ways’. They said this would come as a result of how the benefit is labelled: it’s because it’s called ‘winter fuel’ that people spend it disproportionately more on heating their homes in winter –an example of the fashionable ‘nudge’ theory (i.e. behavioural economics) in practice. For once, the IFS may be wrong.

The IFS economists are very competent, and this paper has been covered in the national media, so the possibility that they may have got it wrong took me by surprise.

Statistical regression analysis investigates whether one variable depends on a number of factors. Needless to say, there are always more potential factors influencing the variable under study than the number any researcher can get hold of. Provided none of the aspects excluded from the analysis are highly relevant, the results would be valid nonetheless. Instead, if some crucial factors were left out, then you cannot say anything about what’s being looked into –preferably, you would not even start crunching the numbers.

The IFS investigated the change in expenditure on fuel as a proportion of total household budget following the receipt of the winter fuel payment benefit. Through various statistical techniques they came to the conclusion above. But –and this is the killer ‘but’- the winter fuel allowance is automatically paid… at the onset of winter.  Would people spend the extra £200-£300 in heating their homes if the allowance were paid in, say, June? Hardly so, even if it were re-labelled ‘the extremely polar conditions mother of all winters payment’. The IFS did not take into account one decisive factor: the time of year the payment is given. True, no-one can disentangle the likely influence of labelling and timing on how the winter fuel allowance is spent –but the consequence of this impossibility is that the existence of a labelling effect is far from established.

We, at Age UK, welcome the fact that recipients of the winter fuel payment spend more on fuel, of course, but this is beside the point: this extra spending may not come as a consequence of the word ‘fuel’ but of the allowance being paid when people need to heat their houses most –it’d be more the ‘winter’ side of things than the ‘fuel’. Hence, it’d be very premature to draw the conclusion that benefit recipients could be nudged towards consuming this or that by merely labelling and re-labelling allowances. It might work, it might not. The IFS paper didn’t prove it.

In some countries in Latin America, the annual salaries are divided into 13 payments –not because there are thirteen months, just in case you wonder. The 13th instalment –known as ‘aguinaldo’ in Spanish- corresponds to a payment given a couple of weeks before Christmas. What do people do with their ‘aguinaldo’? They spend it disproportionately on Christmas gifts, dos and dinners, and the vacations they tend to take shortly after. I remember one year in Argentina the government decided to postpone the payment of the ‘aguinaldo’ until the beginning of January. That year, Christmas dinners lacked some of the usual trimmings and retailers saw their seasonal sales plummet, but the following month there was more pocket money to spend by the seaside than usual. Continue reading

The Baby Pop

There is a ‘baby boom’ in London. Births during the first six months of this year have broken all records.” So The Coshocton Tribune reported back in August1920.

However, the term ‘baby boom’ usually refers to the period roughly between 1946 and 1966, during which a high number of births were recorded in the United States of America. Hence, the ‘baby boomers’ epithet lumps together all the people currently between 44 and 65 years of age, give or take one year.

There hardly passes a week when the “baby boomers” don’t make into the local news, as if the UK had experienced a similar demographic explosion to the USA and -given that it is usually used in the context of a fiscal and pension crisis looming just round the corner- at the same time. I contend here that this is far from being the truth: the UK did not experience a ‘baby boom’ but a moderate increase in fertility for only the ten years starting in 1958.

To measure fertility, the best demographic indicator is the ‘total fertility rate’ (TFR). Its definition is rather technical, but I hope it suffices to say here that total fertility rates measure, well, fertility: when the rate goes up, it’s because more babies are being born.

So, let’s start with the US data. The next figure presents annual US total fertility rates between 1940 and 2009. It shows that total fertility rates exceeded 3.0 between 1947 and 1964. In contrast, they have lingered around 2.0 since the late 1980s.

What about the UK? The following figure presents TFR for England and Wales, along with the US data we have already seen. Apart from a blip in 1947, England and Wales experienced a sustained increase in fertility between 1958 and 1968. Hence, fertility started to increase about a decade later in Britain (the earliest cohort, who is turning 52 this year, has a long way to go until reaching state pension age –in contrast to the first American ‘boomers’). As importantly, TFRs in England and Wales never reached the vertiginous 1950s US rates –merely a modest 2.94, at its highest, in 1964.

It depends on your idea of how stentorian an explosion has to be to qualify as a ‘boom’, of course, but you would possibly agree with me that those who state that there was a ‘baby boom’ in the USA shortly after the WWII might have a point but that, according to the data, the news about UK births has been greatly exaggerated.

We estimated how many more people would be alive today if TFR in England and Wales had reached between 1958 and 1968 the average TFR the US experienced between 1947 and 1964. Accounting for age-specific mortality rates, there would be just short of 2 million more people alive today –around twice the size of Birmingham, UK second largest city, or about the size of West Midlands Urban Area (which includes Wolverhampton, Dudley and Walsall, apart from Birmingham) –the second urban area by size in the UK. Then we would be talking. However, compared to the American case, all we saw in Britain was but a baby ‘pop’.


The health and deprivation triple whammy: poor, nasty and short

When in 1651 Thomas Hobbes speculated that life could be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short he certainly did not have in mind the many people over 65 living in poverty in 2011. However, if we said that their lives are poor, nasty and short we would not be far off the mark –according to a study by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

A recent paper by the ONS looks at inequalities in disability-free life expectancy (DLFE) by area deprivation. DFLE is the number of years an individual is expected to live without a limiting chronic illness or disability. For the UK as a whole, DFLE at age 65 stands at 10.1 years for males and 10.6 years for females. Since 2003, it has virtually stalled both for men and women. Looking across the UK constituent countries, we notice that there have been some improvements in Wales whereas in Scotland and Northern Ireland, men have seen their DFLE reduce since 2004. Continue reading