I have seen the future and it's time to talk about it

We all live longer and the state no longer provides for our old age. Time for a radical rethink of our options
IN 1900 life expectancy for a man was 49 and for a woman 45. At the turn of the next century for women it will be 80 and for men 75. This is quite an achievement. As Bruce Forsyth might say, "Didn't we do well?"

During this century life has become less nasty, brutish and certainly, less short. The ageing of society represents a triumph for medical science and for the improvements in social conditions. But not only are we living longer, we are also having fewer children and having them later. In 1994 for the first time more women in Britain had children in their early to mid 30s than in their early to mid 20s.

Change is usually viewed in any public policy debate as a "problem". The ageing of society, is no exception to this. Although the ability of most people to lead longer, healthier lives is to be welcomed, the shift in the balance of our population must lead to changes in many aspects of how we arrange our affairs. This is bound to affect distribution of resources between the generations. It can also cause conflicts. We see it in the uncertainty over our future pensions: in 1961 there were four people in the working population for every pensioner; by 2030 that ratio will have halved. Globalisation, the information superhighway and technological advances are all having a profound effect upon our lives, But the impact of demographic change has the potential to match them all.

The phenomenon may take 30 years to have its greatest impact but the signs of change are already around us. It is not hard to spot a pattern between pressures on the Health Service; speculation about people living to 120; a woman having a child at 60; pressure on the Green Belt partly from the growth of single person households; and the need to reform the pensions regime.That is why we are starting an initiative with wide implications for the way we think about these issues. It is called the Debate of the Age and it aims to be the biggest exercise in public consultation ever undertaken in this country outside the formal political process.

The Debate will not however, only be about what government should do. For a start, we promise to be sceptical of those who protest their willingness to pay higher taxes to fund numerous deserving causes only to vote the other way in the secrecy of the ballot box. It is also about highlighting what is happening so that organisations and individuals can plan their futures accordingly.

The world has moved on since the NHS was founded. Then 60 per cent of the population were under 20 compared with less than half that today. Moreover, in the post-war era when the Welfare State took on its present shape, actuarial projections suggested that average life expectancy would be only three years beyond retirement. Perhaps the state will decide to dip deeper into its pockets to help tomorrow's elderly.

But that is not the trend at present and if the state will not pick up the tab then individuals need to understand that and plan accordingly. Politicians often say such things: but no one has yet consulted broadly with those who will be affected to see what their preferred options are.

The Debate may be regarded cynically to start with. After all, we are talking about events which culminate 30 years from now and there is a tendency to assume that citizens are not interested in complex problems or planning for a new century. But I believe the cynics will be proved wrong. The issues concerned are of central importance to the type of country we want Britain to be. In the past, big population changes have resulted from the Black Death, the Industrial Revolution or the First World War. None of these events was predictable. Conversely, the forthcoming population changes can be read several years ahead and we can cushion their impact through taking, action now.

I spend much of my time trying to ensure that pensions and long-term savings products can be bought with confidence. Complex financial services products were once the preserve of the relatively well-off. Now they are relevant to the great majority of the population. People do adapt their expectations - as long as they are given the information to assess their choices in advance.

Dependence on occupational pension scheme no longer reflects many people's career patterns. There is a wide acceptance that the state will provide only a basic pension and benefits safety net. So we already know that need to save to ensure that old age is not synonymous with a descent into poverty, although we are still unsure about how to maximize our prosperity across our life-spans.

An important part of the Debate will be about how we pay for age. But it is not only or even primarily about elderly people. It should be controversial and address thoroughly difficult social, economic and moral issues. On some issues a consensus may emerge but even where it does not, people will be better informed about these issues which will have a major impact on their lives.

We want some 30 million people to play some part over the next two years. It should be good for policy-making and insofar as it increases understanding and involves us all, good for democracy too.

Howard Davies is President of Debate of the Age. Anyone who would like to register their views should call 0800 783 4652 or use the website www.age2000.org.uk