This country faces a seismic shift. A change that is often ignored but is visible on every street, town and city across the UK: Ageing.
The vast majority of us are living longer than ever before and there will be many more of us living into old age. 20 years ago, there were 9.3 million people over 65; today, there are over 12 million people over 65; and just 20 years from now it is estimated there will be a staggering 17 million people over the age of 65.
None of the political parties have grasped the scale or importance of this issue. Debates about TV licenses are a sideshow. And even the important debates about how to fund and reform social care feel more like glossing over the problem than addressing the fundamental issue of how to ensure that people live more of their late life in good health and free of disability – thus reducing the demand for social care.
Ageing and longevity should be at the heart of the next government’s agenda. Consumer spending among the over 50s is estimated to be worth £473bn a year in the UK. As others have warned, doing nothing risks an ever-increasing proportion of the public finances being spent on pensions, pensioner benefits, housing benefit, health and social care.
And yet there is an alternative approach that isn’t being utilised. It focuses on the economic dividend of supporting more people to remain in fulfilling work for longer – estimated to be worth about £18bn or 1 per cent on GDP. There’s also room to improve the accessibility and condition of our housing stock, which at a minimum could reduce the NHS bill from falls and cold homes for over-55s, estimated to cost the NHS £624m in first-year treatment costs alone. Such an approach to accessibility would boost physical activity and social connectivity – which could make the difference between someone staying in their home with minimal care needs and needing 24/7 care in a care home alongside the development of products and services to meet the needs and wants of older consumers.
Part of the problem is that political discourse about ageing talks up the differences between generations. The divisive intergenerational rhetoric does not reflect reality – there are greater inequalities within generations than between them. Even among the baby boomers, who are so often portrayed as the “never-had-it-so-good” generation, too many people are living in relative poverty and poor health, and many more are struggling on middle to low incomes. Such debate also risks fracturing society further at a time when we are already struggling with divisions over Brexit.
Successive governments have failed to take any serious pre-emptive action to respond to the age shift in the population. Now is the time for action. It is not too late to change how people approaching later life will fare in the future. Instead of living later life in poor health, financially insecure, in poorly designed and dangerous homes and feeling excluded from their communities, we can build a better future by enabling people to remain active and healthy, contributing to society and the economy for years to come.
We need some brave politicians to proffer some bold solutions and find realistic long-term solutions rather than simply appealing to the “grey vote”.
Take housing for example. There’s a focus on building new and heavily subsidized homes for first-time buyers (although no starter homes under the government’s pledge have actually been built). And yet the number of people 65 and over will increase by 40 per cent in the next 20 years, with households where the oldest person is 85 or over rising by over 70 per cent – faster than any other age group.
The next government could revise building regulations with the sweep of a pen. They could ensure that developers have to ensure all new housing meets a higher minimum standard of accessibility. This isn’t costly or difficult, we’re talking about straightforward changes like not having a step up to the front door, slightly wider doorways, and ensuring there’s a toilet on the ground floor. These changes would make homes easier for a whole range of people, from older and disabled people to parents with pushchairs, but vitally, they would enable older people to “right size” rather than get stuck in homes that are not fit for their needs.
The design of our communities, too, has a huge role to play. Encouraging people to walk and cycle more throughout their lives, through good design of neighborhoods and investment in public transport, would help people to stay healthy and active for longer. Investing in community infrastructure is also vital to create spaces and places in every community where people of all ages and abilities can get together around common and shared interests.
The one area where change has been decisive is raising the state pension age. To stop more people simply moving from one benefit – the state pension – to another, such as jobseekers or employment support allowance, it is vital that people are supported to work for longer.
Employment support is currently failing older jobseekers and the system of benefits. Sanctions need reform to ensure they are fair to those who are approaching state pension age. Employers are also not doing enough, with many failing to support those with health conditions and caring responsibilities to remain in work as well as neglecting to offer flexible working. Stronger incentives and new rights for working carers are needed. If nothing is done, increasing numbers of us will fall out of work early and rely on the state to support us until we are able to draw a pension.
These policy changes have the potential to improve the lives of millions of us now and for generations to come. They make both political and economic sense – uniting the generations and significantly reducing the cost to the public purse. We need all political parties to put the age shift in the population at the heart of their manifestos, for the good of people of all ages.
Anna Dixon is the chief executive of the Centre for Ageing Better
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