Joan Bakewell: I've seen the future, and it belongs to the old

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The Independent Online

The Office of National Statistics must enjoy giving us all a shock. Their recent reappraisal of expected population growth has started many hares running. Some 11 million more people in the next 25 years, far more than we had expected.

"The UK is sleepwalking into a population and environmental nightmare" – this from the Optimum Population Trust. There has been plenty more such apocalyptic language, mostly concerning the tidal wave of immigrants and their irritating habit of having children. But lurking in the shadows is the expected huge growth in the numbers of old people. By 2031 there will be at least 2 million more pensioners than children. The number over 75 will reach 8.2 million.

Shock, horror? Not to some of us. We know who we are. We dutifully lined up the other day for our flu jabs, bright of eye but slack of feature, bright and competent people who find themselves sidelined from the mainstream of national life when they still have so much to offer. So this sidelining will have to stop. Major adjustments need to start now to attitudes, behaviour and provision for the old.

It's still too easy to think of the old as a problem rather than all the other things they are: resilient, resourceful, able, loyal, consistent... attributes not always on offer from the thrusting, ambitious young. Each person over 60 could have at least 20 years of vigorous living to do before bodily wear and tear begins to take its toll. But there are already increasing numbers of people in their eighties carrying on the lives they have always led: Doris Lessing is one. Lucian Freud is still on his feet and at his canvases. My local newspaper, the Camden Journal, boasts the country's oldest columnist. Rose Hacker is 101. Diana Athill, the former doyenne of publishing editors, is soon to publish her sixth memoir, Somewhere Towards the End. She is 89. Such people may seem exceptional now. But the numbers will surely increase. It may be you, dear reader, in 20 or more years' time.

Getting ready for the future is rarely a priority when the present is dire. I don't suppose the old folk of Iraq or Darfur are worrying too much about where they'll be in 20 years. But we in Britain have the space, the time and the ability to begin serious changes now. What we lack is the political will. We need to press forward with initiatives in employment, housing and health care with far more urgency than we are already doing.

The changes to retirement practice are merely the beginning of what needs to be done in the workplace. Many old people would like to work regularly but part-time. Experiments have shown that older employees often have a better attendance record than the young (no hangovers, perhaps), don't chop and change their jobs (the career ladder has lost its meaning) and are generally more polite when manning check-outs and information desks than many youngsters.

Old people will need to re-train: decades-old skills will be out-of-date and, unless they're to be merely dogsbodies and floor-sweepers, old people will need time spent to learn new ways. But once trained, they're likely to stay loyal employees. The old, for their part, will have to concede to younger bosses and collaborate with younger generations. There'll be no space in the workforce for "fings ain't what they used to be". Yes, there will be problems: but there'll be more if we don't do anything.

As for housing, I really think the tradition of care homes is on the way out. They are, on the whole, a brisk and brutal way of dealing with final years. For the most part, old people value their independence and struggle to keep their homes going, only conceding to the inevitable when health and pressure from voluntary carers – usually their children – give them no choice. Having said that, I know some fine and thriving care homes full of bright oldies, busily enjoying lectures, dances, outings. Such places are rare and expensive. And for the final years of decrepitude there are places that offer solace and comfort to end our days. But not enough of them.

Co-housing may well be the coming pattern. It is a model conceived by the old themselves as serving them best. People buy their own living space in a shared building, which is self-governing and self-sufficient. It suits the able old, who can still fend for themselves yet need the watchful eye of sympathetic neighbours. It might be a group of friends, or a co-operative, or an informal arrangement between strangers. Government must take note of attempts to create such places. I know of one in London and one in Scotland. There must be others.

As long ago as 1999 the idea was first launched for a group, now led by Nelson Mandela, calling itself The Elders: senior statesmen and elders from different nations – Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson, Jimmy Carter – to address, consider and advise on any issue they felt needed their wisdom and experience. They have recently been in Sudan. What political effect they can have remains to be seen. Their immediate effect simply in raising the profile of the old points the way to the future.