We need to help decision makers and individuals to stand tall, look the future in the eye, and make the decisions now that will allow us all to enjoy the many benefits that longer life expectancy can bring.

A worldwide 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 as a result of the dramatic medical and social advances of the twentieth century.


With so much more life to enjoy, our aspirations for later life are dramatically different from those of previous generations. We have the luxury, as AARP CEO Barry Rand put it at AARP’s 2012 National Event, of a life reimagined.


In the United Kingdom and the United States, we are lucky that many of our growing older population are in good health; many—although not enough—will retire with a decent income and a strong social network, and many have much to offer society. Properly captured, this potential is enormous.


It has taken a while for many public policy decision makers to realize the scale of these demographic changes, but finally the issue is coming to the fore. Sadly, at the moment in the UK, much of the language around the aging population is rather negative—talking of the “burden” of increasing costs of paying state pensions and benefits to older people. It is interesting how a phenomenon welcomed on a personal or familial level—few would wish an earlier death on themselves or their loved ones—becomes threatening at a societal level.


Of course, such rhetoric overlooks the huge contributions that older people make to their communities and the wider economy through employment, volunteering, caring for partners and grandchildren, paying taxes, and their role as major consumers. These contributions are often hidden and difficult to calculate but are undeniably very substantial. Data from the latest UK census in 2001 showed that more than 1.5 million people over age 60 were providing unpaid care. Research published in 2007 estimated that caregivers over age 60 in the UK are providing up to £50 billion in unpaid family care. How many working families would find life impossible if they couldn’t rely on grandparents for childcare support?


Economic Belt-Tightening


The timing of the debate around the aging population in the UK is perhaps unfortunate, held as it is against a backdrop of a beleaguered economy and the associated belt-tightening. Since the coalition government came into being in 2010 on a promise of eliminating the UK’s structural deficit by 2015, it has had to give the public a lot of bad news, such as cuts to government services and working-age benefits. The treasury recently announced plans to cut an additional £10 billion from the country’s welfare budget.


Against this context there is a perception that older people have generally fared better than most other groups—that the government has acted to protect them from the worst impact of falling living standards and reduced affluence.


It is true that the government has made some welcome commitments to make life better for older people in the UK. Soon after coming to power, it introduced the triple-lock guarantee, meaning that state pensions will rise by a minimum of 2.5 percent a year from now on—more if inflation or average wage increases are above that level. It has also gotten rid of the Default Retirement Age, meaning that employers can no longer fire people purely because of their age, and implemented legislation introduced by the previous government banning age discrimination in the provision of most goods and services.


Media commentary suggesting that today’s older people belong to “the lucky generation” help perpetuate the belief that every older person enjoys an affluent lifestyle, but unfortunately this is a long way from the mark. Generalizations about our aging population obscure the enormous variations among older people. This is particularly stark in terms of poverty and wealth: In the 55–64 cohort, for example, the top decile holds household wealth of £1.3 million while the poorest decile has less than £28,000. More generally, fewer than half of all retirees have an income big enough to pay income tax—meaning that they live on less than £11,000 a year. Older people’s median income levels remain lower than those of the population as a whole.


Ensuring a Long Life is a Good Life


While the government’s scorecard is relatively good, there are other areas in which we are awaiting development. For example, at the time of writing we are awaiting its proposals for introducing a flat-rate pension, which promises to be much fairer and simpler. Currently few people know how much they are likely to receive from the state when they retire and so lack the clarity needed to plan effectively. The proposed system would also be fairer for those who take time from work to look after small children or care for older loved ones.


Age UK is also anxiously waiting for spending commitment from the government on the country’s spiraling social care crisis. Currently England’s social care system is based on the Tudor poor laws—more than 600 years old—upon which has been built an increasingly rickety pile of legislation and regulations that, combined with funding that has been static or falling for more than five years, have resulted in a system in deep crisis. Last summer the government published proposals for radical reforms that would transform this unfair and unsustainable system for the twenty-first century, but as yet little has been done to find the money to make the reforms work. In the meantime, Age UK estimates that more than 800,000 older people who need care are struggling by without any formal help. Many others will end up spending nearly every penny they have ever earned to pay for care.


On both pensions and social care, the devil will be in the details. In both areas the government has an opportunity to transform later life, lifting much of the current worry and uncertainty inflicted on older people and their families. But vision and courage are needed, especially during these difficult times.


Going forward, some key areas must be a priority for Age UK. Investing in an aging population, taking a life course approach, designing health services to meet needs more effectively, encouraging employers to make the most of the skills of an aging workforce, and helping people to plan and save for retirement would together help to ensure that a long life is a good life. It is important that we support people as they get older to live reasonably well, not merely to get by.


The potential cost of an aging society is not the only reason why we need public sector reform. Many services were designed for a wholly different world and need reconfiguring to reflect the aging population we have today and will have tomorrow.


For example, the most significant challenges for health (and especially public health) strategies are the need to tackle the issue of managing chronic conditions and to support the growing numbers of people living longer with multiple physical and mental long-term conditions, including dementia, which limit their lives. If we can improve the National Health Service’s (NHS) performance on these conditions, the impact on older people’s health outcomes will be truly transformational and scarce public funds will be much better spent.


Age discrimination remains too prevalent. Older age is often mocked, and there is still explicit age discrimination in both the public and the private sectors. Age UK has ensured that hard-won legislation is now on the statute book (Equality Act 2010 and the Public Sector Equality Duty). But we all have a job to do to shift public attitudes and perceptions about aging and old age—a job that will go beyond changing the law to changing people’s mind-sets.


There are still choppy waters ahead. At a time of austerity, you would expect a lively public debate about where the government invests its resources. A debate is emerging in the UK around universal versus means-tested benefits. Universal, age-based benefits in the UK, such as the Winter Fuel Payments, the free bus pass, and free television licenses, have attracted criticism from some who suggest they are unaffordable in today’s climate. We believe that such assertions understate the very real needs that these benefits meet and the problems associated with more targeted approaches. For example, for a number of reasons, universal benefits undoubtedly reach the very poorest older people much more effectively than means-tested measures. They also smooth the cliff edge of means testing, reaching people whose modest savings exclude them from those benefits.


Energy bills have sky-rocketed over recent years, forcing many older people to choose between “heating or eating.” As there are an estimated 26,000 excess winter deaths every year, help with heating bills can be lifesaving; yet one in three older people on very low incomes who are eligible for extra financial help via a benefit for which they must apply do not claim it.


The tactic of blaming our aging population for future fiscal pressure is becoming all too common and enabling some in the media and public life to argue that our older population is a “‘drain on society.” This is largely the result of a desire to find a simple explanation for the very complex issue of fiscal sustainability. 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 in three key areas—pensions, the NHS, and social care. They do not ignore the possibility of significant changes, such as improvements and efficiencies in medical care that reduce costs.


The growth of the state pension budget is a fairly robust calculation. Promises made and rights accrued are guarantees that cannot be lightly overturned. In health and social care, however, there is no such rigidity. Focusing our health and care systems away from crisis management and toward detection and prevention could offer cost-effective measures that promote independence and active aging. Increasing years of life expectancy must not translate into increased years of ill health; we believe that it is essential that we work to prevent this and that there is a good prospect of success if we do.


For Age UK there are challenging times ahead. Massive spending cuts across UK public spending means our advocacy work has never been more important. But they also have huge implications for how we shape our own charitable services as a major provider of both national and local-level services.


The voluntary sector in the UK is having to think hard about how we design, promote, fund, and implement our services as we face the rising needs of a growing older population against the backdrop of big cuts in statutory funding.


We also have a part to play in helping to shift public perceptions of aging. The stigma around getting older does little to persuade working-age people to plan ahead for a comfortable retirement. Over the next few years, all but the lowest-paid workers will be automatically enrolled in a workplace pension scheme, which will help ensure that people are putting aside enough. But the challenge is not merely about saving, it is about encouraging people to see that the decisions they make today could affect how they grow older—whether by embracing a healthy lifestyle or keeping their workplace skills up-to-date for a longer career.


The global population will continue to age—and that is a tremendous cause for celebration. We need to help decision makers and individuals to stand tall, look the future in the eye, and make the decisions now that will allow us all to enjoy the many benefits that longer life expectancy can bring.





Michelle Mitchell


Michelle Mitchell is Charity Director General for Age UK. Michelle has overall responsibility for Age UK’s domestic charitable work, including external affairs, research and Age UK’s charitable service delivery and development. Michelle was previously Communications Director for Age Concern England and Chair of the Fawcett Society (2005-2008).  Michelle has a BA in Economics, MA in Politics and Administration, an International Executive Diploma from INSEAD and has completed the Innovations in Government Programme at Harvard University JFK School.




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