The population timebomb

There are now more pensioners in Britain than under 16s – with explosive consequences for NHS and pensions
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The Independent Online

Dramatic evidence of Britain's rapidly ageing population emerged yesterday as figures showed that the number of pensioners now exceeds those under 16 for the first time.

The landmark demographic shift promises a future of pension shortfalls, a greater burden on the NHS and steadily increasing retirement ages. The research, from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), was held up as proof of Britain's failure to prepare for an era when the over-80s represent the fastest-growing section of the population. The nation's make-up has shifted dramatically in 40 years.

In 1971, a quarter of the nation was under 16, while 15 per cent were of pensionable age. Now, 11,561,500 people are of retirement age – 19 per cent of the population. And crucially, there are 52,000 more pensioners than under-16s. The annual growth rate in the number of people reaching retirement age, which had stayed at less than 1 per cent for 26 years, has doubled in the past year to nearly 2 per cent.

The over-80s are the most rapidly expanding demographic, making up 4.5 per cent of the population, compared to 2.8 per cent in 1981. Campaigners said the statistics showed that ministers needed to do more to plan for an ageing population. Increased funding for the NHS was a priority to ensure people could choose to work longer and enjoy an independent lifestyle.

Gordon Lishman, the director general of Age Concern, said Britons were getting older and facing longer periods of ill health. "The Government must face up to the reality of an ageing population and make a firm commitment to improve health services, like mental health and foot care, which enable people to stay independent for longer."

Business leaders said that a five-year rise in life expectancy between 1980 and 2000 – coupled with the fact that 12 million Britons had not saved enough for retirement – meant there was a need to ensure people could work beyond the retirement age of 60 for women and 65 for men. Neil Carberry, the head of employment policy at the CBI, said: "As the baby-boom generation retires we are likely to see significant increases in the ratio of retired people to people in the workforce. We are going to see many people will choose to work longer."

The official statistics published yesterday put Britain's population at about 61 million. A period of rapid growth had been fuelled by falling death rates and immigration. The rise in pensionersis due largely to the number of women born in the post-war baby boom who reached the state pension age in 2007.

Also, the mortality rate for over-75s has fallen from 137 deaths per 1,000 in 1915 to 83 deaths per 1,000 in 2006-07. The 65-74 age group has experienced a higher rate drop, from 57 to 19 deaths per 1,000.

The figures also showed record levels of immigration, with more than 600,000 people moving to Britain for the long term last year. However, 400,000 people left for a life abroad – taking emigration to its highest level since 1991.

Immigrants are doing their bit to keep the population younger; the number of babies with foreign-born mothers has nearly doubled in the past decade – 160,340 in 2007, which was nearly one in four births. In some towns and cities, including London, Slough and Luton, more than half of babies had mothers born overseas.

But new figures from the Home Office, also published yesterday, showed a slump in the number of people from eastern Europe applying to work in Britain, fuelling fears that they may be the latest indication of an economic slowdown. Between April and June, 40,000 people applied to work in Britain from the eight countries which joined the EU in 2004, down 14,000 on last year.

Overall, population growth has accelerated to 0.5 per cent a year since 2001, compared with 0.3 per cent in the previous decade.

Mike Murphy, a professor of demography at the London School of Economics, said: "These trends are going to continue ... Britain is in a much better position than most of Europe because people have been thinking about it for some time."

Mervyn Kohler, of the charity Help the Aged, said: "The days of assuming older people are dependants must now come to an end. These figures clearly show the economic harm that will be caused to UK plc by continuing to exclude older people from the active workforce."