The number of people aged over 65 living in the United Kingdom has passed 10 million for the first time with the proportion of 85-year-olds now the fastest growing section of society and up nearly a quarter in the past decade, according to new figures released from the 2011 census.
It means that 16 per cent of the population is now either approaching or passed retirement age, fuelling fears that Britain is failing to come to grips with a demographic time bomb.
The Office of National Statistics said that in the past 100 years the number of young people aged 14 and below had halved to less than one in five despite the census recording an increase in the number of births in recent years.
But the number of very old people was growing particularly fast, campaigners warned. The population of over 85s soared 270,000 in 2001 to 1.4m in the latest census.
Age UK’s Charity Director General, Michelle Mitchell said, improving longevity was a cause for celebration. “What we need to do now is to make sure that those of us who make up this growing part of the population are able to live as fulfilling and dignified lives as possible and can continue to participate in our local communities. That means we as a society mustn’t overlook the needs and desires of the oldest among us,” she said.
Figures from the ONS predict the number of over 65s is expected to increase by 50 per cent over the next 20 years to 16m in the UK. The number of 85-year-olds will treble in three decades largely as a result of improving health care and healthy lifestyles.
Last month the Care Quality Commission warned of a looming crisis in social care provision with increasing numbers of those with age-related or multiple conditions requiring long term treatment.
The figures were published as it emerged that the total number of people living in the UK has reached a record level after growing at its fastest rate for more than half a century.
Data, which for the first time includes Scotland, revealed that the overall UK population was 63.2m – up 4.1m from 2001.
Scotland meanwhile posted its first population increase after seeing decades of decline. The governing Scottish National Party hailed the 4.6 per cent growth as evidence of the viability of the country as an independent nation.
The data also showed that men were continuing to narrow the historic gap with women largely as a result of increasing male survival rates. In 2011 there were just 1.1m more women than men – down from a peak of nearly two million in 1951.
England, which accounts for 84 per cent of UK population, and Northern Ireland posted the biggest overall population gains at 7.2 per cent whilst Wales saw an increase of 5.3 per cent since 2001.
Although more modest at 4.6 per cent, Scotland’s growth was statistically more significant because the country – which accounts for eight per cent of UK population - had been witnessing net decline from the mid-1970s peak to just after the millennium. Experts said a growing number of migrants combined with a mini-baby boom in the past five years had helped reverse the historic trend.
SNP Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop welcomed the figures. “A decade and more of devolution has delivered a growing and record high population. That is not simply a sign of the dynamic, attractive nation we are building. It is also a key factor in delivering economic growth in future years,” she said.
But the 2011 Scottish population figure of 5,295,000 disguised a more pronounced imbalance between young and old. The number over 65s living north of the border increased 0.9 per cent to 16.8 per cent of the total in contrast to England and Wales where the figure was 16.4 per cent – up 0.5 per cent in a more rapidly growing population.
Meanwhile, the percentage of those aged 14 and under in Scotland slid sharply by 1.7 per cent placing further tax strain on future workers who will be required to support an ageing population. And for the first time since records began the number of over 65s outnumbered those aged under 14.
However, a six per cent rise in the number of under-fives meant the dependency balance would eventually be reduced. The Scottish population was made up of 2,728,000 women and 2,567,000 men, the census showed.