Guest post by Dr Anna Dixon, Chief Executive, Centre for Ageing Better.
We are experiencing a social revolution. We are living much longer than our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. In 1914, someone born had just a 1 in 100 chance of living until 100. For a child born today it’s 1 in 3. This is a profound and remarkable achievement.
Yet debates about ageing are dominated by concerns about rising pension and health care costs.
We urgently need to reframe our thinking if we are to make the most of the incredible advances that have gifted us our longer lives. But most importantly we need action to respond to and plan for this demographic change across public and private sectors. Currently too many people are missing out on a good later life. 1.8 million households headed by someone aged 50 to State Pension age are struggling to maintain their living standards and save for retirement. These are not the poorest households, who are faring much worse.
It is fantastic then that this week the Prime Minister set out a mission to increase the years we spend in good health and free from disability so that everyone can stay happy, independent and healthy in old age, and close the gap between rich and poor. This is an ambition we share at the Centre for Ageing Better – we want a society in which everyone enjoys later life.
The government has already recognised the economic opportunity of ageing in the Industrial Strategy and is seeking to stimulate businesses in the UK to innovate and develop new services and products to meet this growing consumer market. Consumers aged 50 and over spend around £314 billion a year, 43% of total household consumption. This is not about smart chair lifts or solar powered mobility scooters. We need inclusive design across all the products and services we use every day.
The government’s approach to healthy ageing rests on 4 pillars:
- finance and the economy
- health and care
- home and communities
- work and purpose
This makes sense. Our own research found that the ingredients of a good later life are financial security, health, social relationships and a sense of purpose.
So what action is needed?
Housing needs a complete overhaul. Currently 1 in 5 homes in England are deemed non-decent, and these are disproportionately lived in by people in later life. The proportion of households where the oldest person is 85 or over will grow faster than any other age group over the next 25 years. We need all new homes being built now to be ‘age-proof’ - adaptable and fit for purpose, whatever people’s age.
The communities in which we live also need to change to be inclusive of people of all age and abilities. This means good transport links, opportunities to get involved in civic life, a sense of neighbourliness, and places and outdoor spaces to meet people’s needs. There is a growing movement of Age Friendly Communities, places that have committed to supporting residents to age well. Every community across the UK should be signed up to this commitment.
As we live longer, we also need to work for longer. Ensuring people can remain in good work is vital for the UK economy and for mitigating projected skills and labour shortages. As well as being financially beneficial for individuals, good work helps people to remain social, healthy and active. And yet many of our workplaces have not adapted to an age diverse workforce. One in 4 older workers with a long term health problem condition is on the brink of quitting because they aren’t getting the support they need from employers to manage their conditions. Employers need to overhaul their approach to flexible working, training and development of older workers, and adopt recruitment processes that aren’t biased in favour of younger candidates.
Delivering the mission set out by the Prime Minister will need action from local government, charities and the voluntary sector, both large employers and small employers and businesses and public services to make our housing, communities and workplaces age-friendly and fit for the future.
This is real opportunity for society to make up for lost time and deal head on with the seismic change we are experiencing - for the benefit of current and future generations. Adding life to years rather than years to life. Reducing the scandalous gulf that exists between rich and poor in how they experience old age. The real grand challenge is to seize the opportunity of a good later life now. I hope we won’t miss it.