The UK population is ageing. More of us are living longer than ever before and the proportion of the population aged 65 years and older is growing as the baby boomers age. Thanks to advances in medical science and rising living standards, many diseases which would have led to death or disability in the past, are now preventable or survivable. These profound demographic changes will not only affect us in years to come, but are already changing the way we live today.
A recent report by the Government Office for Science, ‘Future of an Ageing Population’, reminds us of the scale of the changes we face and of the urgent need to prepare for them and respond to them. It sets out how many aspects of our society are being impacted by an ageing population:
- the world of work
- how and when we learn
- the homes and neighbourhoods in which we live
- family and household structure
- health and social care services, and
- the way we use technology
Our response as individuals, as a society, and how government responds will shape the future. A future with growing numbers of people in later life who are happy, healthy, financially secure and able to contribute fully to society; or one in which more people experience ill health and disability for longer, live in poverty or worry about money, and who feel excluded from society?
Things are changing quickly. The Government Office for Science report says that half the UK population were over the age of 40 by mid-2014. By 2040 nearly 1 in 7 people are expected to be aged over 75. This will have a profound impact on people of every age. Many people delay planning (or are even ‘deniers‘) – but through youth and middle age, we need to think about the pattern of our working lives including the potential to work for longer, retrain, or work more flexibly to suit our later lives. We need to manage our finances throughout life with foresight about our later lives. And of course try and stay healthy and fit, find time for friends, think about where we’ll live; and how we’ll keep active and make a contribution. Such changes will also shape public services, such as health, social care, and transport, as well as the housing market and consumer goods and services.
By 2050 there will be an additional 8 million people aged between 50 and the state pension age. As our productivity and economic success become increasingly tied to that of older workers we must find ways to enable people to work for longer. Learning throughout our lifetimes will help us to participate for longer in the labour market, build personal and mental resilience and bring health and wellbeing benefits.
By 2037 there will be an extra 1.42 million households headed by someone aged 85 or over. Homes will increasingly be used as places of work and care, so we need appropriately designed housing that can adapt to people’s changing needs.
More people will live alone, and will be ageing without children, raising issues about how the need for care will be met. Without significant improvements in health more people could be living longer in poor health or with disability, increasing demand for health and social care. Our infrastructure will need to adapt too – transport systems and the built environment as well as digital and information technology will need to enable people of all ages to remain active and connected. There is risk otherwise of increasing levels of social isolation and exclusion.
Growing old should be an enriching experience for the many, not just the few. Too many people are forced out of work before they are ready to retire, have insufficient savings to support themselves financially in later life, live in unsuitable homes with limited access to services that can help them remain active, connected and in control, and experience ill health and disability as a result of preventable chronic conditions.