Does Old Age Have To Mean Life On The Sidelines?
What happens to people as they get older? What should be the starting points for more consideration of this vexed question? With post-war babies now reaching retirement and many of their parents still alive, the numbers of elderly people in the UK is increasing dramatically.
Socio-economic infrastructure nonetheless still often lags behind; whilst never unimportant, advanced old age was until quite recently not a widespread issue. But significantly extended life expectancy is something which will now impinge on most of us, directly.
The demographics of old age
The Office for National Statistics tells us that
There is a pressing need to understand better how to accommodate and respond to this shift in the UK’s demographic.The estimated resident population of the UK was 61,792,000 in mid-2009, up by 394,000 on the previous year. Children aged under 16 represented approximately one in five of the total population, around the same proportion as those of retirement age. In mid-2009 the average age of the population was 39.5 years, up from 37.3 in 1999…..
Up to the age of around 70, the number of males and females are fairly equal. At older ages, towards the top of the pyramid, females outnumber males. This is shown by longer bars on the female side of the pyramid. The ratio of females to males increases progressively from 1.1 at age 70, to 2.1 by the age of 89. This reflects the higher life expectancy of women at older ages and higher male mortality during the Second World War….. People of working age (aged 16 to 64 for males and 16 to 59 for females) represent 62 per cent of the total mid-2009 population.
By this reckoning the average age of Britons has risen by two years in the past decade or so, and there is roughly one dependent person in the UK for every two of working age.
The Parliamentary Business website drives this message home, in its commentary on The ageing population:
10 million people in the UK are over 65 years old. The latest projections are for 5½ million more elderly people in 20 years time and the number will have nearly doubled to around 19 million by 2050. Within this total, the number of very old people grows even faster. There are currently three million people aged more than 80 years and this is projected to almost double by 2030 and reach eight million by 2050. While one-in-six of the UK population is currently aged 65 and over, by 2050 one in-four will be. The pensioner population is expected to rise despite the increase in the women’s state pension age to 65 between 2010 and 2020 and the increase for both men and women from 65 to 68 between 2024 and 2046. In 2008 there were 3.2 people of working age for every person of pensionable age. This ratio is projected to fall to 2.8 by 2033.
With data like this to hand, there can be no avoiding the stark fact of an ageing population.
Individuals’ communities change
In a recent New Start ‘Your blog’ entry we took a look at how Communities are much more than localities, and at some of the many things which shape people’s understandings and experiences of communities.
Amongst the factors identified as influencing these understandings was ‘age’ – the universal but constantly changing experience of all of us.
Throughout childhood and until well into middle age most people find that their knowledge, experience and social worlds expand, as does to whatever degree their influence both in family contexts and, if in paid employment, at work.
The economic contexts
As people approach retirement things begin to change. Experience may continue to accrue, but influence fades. It is a very common complaint of those who have retired that they become invisible – and just at the point where their needs become greater.
For a number of reasons, moral, social and economic, this invisibility and lack of influence is unacceptable. People do not choose when they will be born, or how this will affect their life expectancy, but we as a society can and must take greater responsibility for the quality of older people’s lives – as we already absolutely correctly attempt to, when people are at the other end of the dependency spectrum, in the early years.
And, when it comes to economics, it’s not only the costs to society of ageing which we need to consider, but also the missed chances to use skills acquired over a lifetime, as Sarah Longlands pointed out in her New Start blog in June on The economic opportunities of ageing.
Connecting communities and economies
The social invisibility and economic sidelining of older people are fundamentally connected. This is by-and-large the first generation in which retired people still have responsibilities for their parents: to illustrate, my own family stretches four generations and 95 years… and it’s becoming the norm. It has or will, with a fair wind, happen to most readers of this column.
Only rarely is it recognised that, just as people’s individual and personal experience of communities is in flux throughout life, so should be their economic activity. Of course in extreme old age it is unlikely that anyone will want paid work, but that is not the case for all others of retirement age.
Our employment practices however make this very difficult. Despite B&Q and a few other enlightened employers, the trend is towards seeing older people as having little to offer. But it’s the way most employment is set up which prevents engagement, not generally the lessening of competence and knowledge.
Much the same factors which mitigate against many women in the workforce also mitigate against the active involvement of older people.
A different sort of Big Society?
It would be wrong to suppose that most newly-retired people can or want to be volunteers. Some will be so happily, but others often need extra money which with more opportunity they could earn and thereby reinvest in their local economy to help create even more jobs. There is scope here for wider engagement of citizens, but not necessarily for free.
But neither should we assume that older people must always draw down their horizons. Their communities of interest need not always shrink – there are e.g. (and despite a few rigid universities) plenty of examples of 70-year-old professors….
It depends on the type of work and the health and energy of the individual, but the age-inclusive model can probably work, when ways to apply it are thought out.
Quality of life
It’s not however just employment for older people which we need to think about much more carefully.
The provision of appropriate, well-located housing and health and social support is a critical challenge. Disability in old age can be devastating for both the person concerned and their carers. To put it bluntly, the appliances and equipment of babyhood are often required again in bigger versions when people become disabled or very old; and that’s before we get to the deeply distressing prolonged isolation which some older people experience.
But how many of us truthfully face up to all this, until there is no escape from the reality?
Making the agenda visible
Old age is not a universally difficult stage in life, but it can be a challenge. The problem is that all too often the problems are put aside, as though they will impact only on a small (and neglected) minority of us.
That’s not, in the real world, how it is.
By ignoring older people we also fail to recognise critical matters of fact: The large majority of us, thanks to social and medical advances, will get old; and most of us will need at some point to care for very elderly dependents.
The personal is policy-political
Housing, health care, pensions, employment, well-being, shrinking networks or communities, disability, or what you will; these are some aspects of the real world experience of older people. And one day, if not now, that will be you.
How would you like to experience your advancing years? And how do you think the larger community should approach the issue for and with those who are already elders?
A discussion which continues
These are some of the agenda issues which Austin Macauley, Sarah Longlands and I, with some other New Start contributors, have been considering. What do you think, too?
A version of this article was first posted on the New Start Blog on 16 September 2010.
It was also selected as ‘Blog of the Month’ for October 2010 by New Start Magazine.