Alan Walker: When I'm old, I'd like to be treated fairly. Can our society deliver?

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The Independent Online

The Government has pinpointed demographic change as one of the three great challenges facing Britain (along with terrorism and global warming). That is a significant step but there is a missing element – the issue of fairness.

Older people's human rights should be central to policy and practice. Too many older people experience discrimination and social exclusion, and feel they are not listened to or valued; far too many experience long poverty, low incomes and related health problems.

We all share the same goal: to prevent or delay for as long as possible (ideally to the point of death) all of the negative associations with later life - physical, mental and financial.

The Government deserves praise for several impressive strategies and plans, for example on housing and social inclusion of older people. Now is the time to implement them.

The recession also reminds us of the need to combat ageism – especially in the workplace. The last recession hit the middle-aged particularly hard, with many remaining unemployed for up to 15 years before retiring. Employment should be part of a new ageing strategy which reflects the fact that ageing is a lifetime process.

However, no strategy aimed at improving our post-retirement years can be meaningful if it does not tackle pensioner poverty and acknowledge that the present approach will not eradicate it. Finally, any strategy on fairness in an ageing society must spotlight inter-generational relations. Younger people need to be clear that they have to think long term about their own ageing and the factors that determine well-being across their life.

Individually and as a society we have yet to absorb just how significant demographic change is. Public policy always has a structural lag, in which both thinking and practice remain rooted in the past. We have the evidence base for a new approach, some excellent strategies and some very successful pilot projects. The last part is simple: a bold new vision, about fairness and human rights for older people, with political support and the resources to tackle a great challenge.

Alan Walker is Professor of Social Policy and Social Gerontology at the University of Sheffield. He was speaking at the launch of the 'Fairness in an ageing society policy forum'