The pollsters, pundits and political commentariat had a bad year in 2015. Events did not follow conventional lines.
Few (south of Hadrian’s Wall) foresaw the SNP domination in Scotland, and few anticipated the election of a majority Conservative Government, the melt-down of the Lib Dems, or the triumph of Jeremy Corbyn.
Few worked out that David Cameron’s political priorities would become focussed on his EU objectives, and that domestic politics would increasingly hinge on George Osborne’s views and a Treasury-led perspective.
Few saw that the disruptive political forces internationally – for example Podemos in Spain, the Front National in France, Donald Trump in the US – would have so much traction.
A BOOST FOR RENEWABLES
The economic front was no less disruptive. Rather surprisingly, more than 20 per cent of UK electricity supplies were generated from renewable resources, and it was even more in Germany, where newly built coal-fired power stations may never be commissioned and brought into production.
House price rises (+7%) continued to outpace income growth (1.8%). Record numbers of local bank branches closed, and food bank numbers reached a new high.
Worldwide, commodity prices fell as economic growth continued to stutter, and commodity producers struggled to balance their books.
LONELINESS, WINTER AND CARE
Social care spending continued to contract and state-funded care provision dwindled at the same time as the older population grew.
But curiously, despite these problems facing older people, the intergenerational debate continued to thrive: is the pain of the recession and the impact of welfare reform being fairly shared between the old and the young?
THE INTERGENERATIONAL QUESTION
Countering this tendency to disruption, the UN climate change conference in Paris in December represented really heartening harmony. Its ambition may have fallen short, and the wiggle room left for individual countries might be a concern, but its coherence and widespread adoption gives grounds for optimism.
Sadly, a similar consensus on ageing is not even near the table, despite it being a parallel global issue, where we could all be learning from each other’s successes and failures.
Indeed in the UK, despite decades of discussion and repeated warnings from the Office of Budget Responsibility about the financial impact of an ageing population, we have no strategy to address the challenges – to our future pension costs, health costs, and social care costs particularly.
THE IMPACT OF AN AGEING POPULATION
How far should they be collectively borne, or how much is the responsibility of individuals? Could investment in one drive down the demand for services to address the others?
A crucial challenge is that we must shape a society where the social arrangements and physical infrastructure will suit the hopes and aspirations of a future generation of older people.
It is too simplistic to take today’s problems and scale them up by demographic change – today’s 65 year olds will probably be very different from today’s 80 year olds when they become 80 in 15 years’ time.
But if the debate about an ageing population is not to continue bogged down in sterile arguments about intergenerational fairness, and fails to plan positively and adventurously, there must be an approach no less disruptive than we have seen in other fields in 2015. And we need it soon.