Hamish McRae: Working longer ought to be an opportunity, not a curse

The challenge is to create communities of older people who can look after themselves

Increasing the pension age is the easy bit. You can legislate for that. Adapting to an ageing society in its every manifestation will be vastly harder – and vastly more important. For countries that adapt well to ageing, which is happening to every society in the developed world, will become richer, healthier, better balanced and in all probability happier communities than those that fail to tackle an inevitable and indeed welcome feature of this century.

Welcome? Well, yes of course, for a world where we live longer is surely preferable to one where we all die young. It is one of the changes to our world that we know with a high level of confidence will continue for another couple of generations. So we can plan for it. Raising the retirement age, fixing the funding for public pensions, improving private pensions, encouraging personal savings – all these are things that can and will have to be done. The sooner we get moving the more manageable the scale of the changes that have to be made. Anyone who doubts the size of the challenge should note that were there no change in the pensionable age, over the next 20 years the number of people drawing pensions would rise by around 60 per cent, while the number of people in the workforce would probably fall. Taking more and more of a shrinking workforce's salaries to pay pensions is not a recipe for social solidarity.

But to focus on pensions and retirement is to think about the mechanical consequences of ageing, the accounting side of things. But there are other consequences of ageing that are more interesting and even more important. For example, what happens to the nature of work? What will be the social attitudes of the "new old"? How will people adapt to four-generation families?

There is no road map to help us navigate through this new world, because it has never happened before. The most extreme case at the moment is Japan, which has now become the oldest society in the history of our species. It has some 20,000 people reaching the age of 100 every year. There are towns where there are hardly any young people at all, as they have left to find jobs in the big cities. The schools have closed and it is the 80-year-olds that have to look after the centenarians. While Japan is coping with ageing in a calm and co-operative way, the fact remains that it has had no significant increase in living standards for a generation. That is the prospect that the rest of us have to confront as we head down a similar path, albeit some paces behind. So what might we do – aside from increasing the retirement age and improving pensions – to make this a happier journey?

It needs a leap of imagination. Why is it that advertisements directed at the elderly always portray them as vigorous 70-somethings, playing golf or gazing out to sea on some cruise ship? Actually older people are just younger people who happen to have been around a bit longer, not the separate species that the 30-year-old in the ad agency imagines. Apply that leap of imagination to the workplace. We still think in terms of a job with a particular place of work, specified hours, holiday pay, PAYE and so on. But people in their 70s won't want that sort of rigid contract. It is true that older workers tend to have fewer days off work for health reasons than younger ones – they don't pull "sickies" – but in general they will want the freedom to choose their hours and, if practicable, their place of work. For anyone working on screen the broadband revolution makes this vastly easier.

There are other aspects to the modern workplace that discourage the elderly. These include the "box-ticking" element that has crept into a lot of public-sector jobs, the need for specific credentials, the requirement to go on training courses and so on. We all know of people who have retired early from jobs they previously enjoyed, and did very well, because of some new bureaucratic requirement that has been placed on them. When some new bit of health and safety legislation is passed, no one asks or maybe even cares that one effect might be to discourage older, experienced workers and have them replaced by younger and less experienced ones.

This happens at every level. For example, older people are discouraged by the code of good practice from being directors of public companies. But had there been more 70-year-olds on the boards of our banks there would have been more people who remembered the run on the banks in the 1970s – a run that spread to National Westminster – and they might have been better prepared for the catastrophe last year.

So changing the nature of work to make it more friendly to older people is not so much a question of bringing in programmes to encourage older people, though the programmes that companies such as Tesco have to attract older workers are perfectly worthwhile. It is more a case of looking at every aspect of legislation, taxation and regulation to ask what its effect might be on older workers. Petty bureaucracy in the workplace is a big turn-off and people who don't have to work don't have to put up with it.

Voluntary work also needs a leap of imagination. The distinction between paid and unpaid work is far too rigid. What matters is that the work gets done. There is a massive well of enthusiasm and goodwill from which society can draw but people who are giving their time for free need to be cherished. We are making some progress, for example with volunteer special constables and cadets in the police force, but I suspect we have hardly begun. You see, it is not just a matter of getting older people to volunteer, though I think we could make it more rewarding for those who do. It is a matter of getting more jobs done in whatever way makes best sense.

There are other changes that go far beyond the world of work. An older society will want more order. It will by its nature be more orderly, if only because most crime is carried out by the young. The issue therefore will be how our society can be nudged in the direction it already wants to go. There is no magic wand that a government can wave that can fix social problems; indeed this may not be a task for government at all. But the basic point is that the more we can create communities that, so to speak, look after themselves, the less of a burden that places on the professional, paid-for services needed to look after them.

The vital thing will be to use all resources, human and financial, as effectively as possible. Obviously there will have to be more money going into caring for the elderly and most of it will have to come from the state. But the better the general health of older people, the smaller the burden on the smaller, tax-paying workforce. The more we can stop young people getting into crime, the more that policing, court and other costs can be cut and transferred to other services.

To say that is common sense, but to apply it requires a new mindset. It is one that requires politicians to push back responsibility to communities: to say "we can't fix this; you have to fix it – though we will try and make it easier for you to do so".

Ultimately an older society has to be a more efficient society because there won't be the resources to fix problems. But that is to use "efficient" in the nice sense of the word, not the harsh one. Ageing is an opportunity to build a better society, not an uncaring one.