Making ageing societies productive and cohesive.
post by Laura Brewis
Both the population of the United Kingdom and the global population are ageing at a high rate. This is both in terms of the proportion of a society that the elderly make up and the absolute number of older people within a population. These demographic changes present us with several challenges. The most pressing of these are, in my view, the strains an elderly population put upon health care services and the seemingly contrasting interests of older and younger generations. Here, I will focus my discussion of ageing on the UK.
The phenomenon of ageing can be mostly attributed to two changes that have occurred since the dawn of the industrial revolution: increasing life expectancy and decreasing fertility rates. Increasing life expectancy (or decreasing mortality rates) is the first change a population experiences when transitioning to an ageing society. It is caused by improvements in healthcare, hygiene and living standards (Phillipson, 2013). Decreases in the number of children born to each family can be seen as a result of two facts. Firstly, a higher proportion of children survive to adulthood so there is less necessity to produce high numbers of children in order to ensure the survival of another generation. Secondly in Western society, for a variety of reasons, women began to start families later in life. Now, many women do not start to have children until their 30s, whereas 200 years ago most women were having children in their late teens. This means that modern women have less time to produce children before the menopause, and so fertility rates drop (ibid.).
One of the most important challenges we face in relation to ageing populations is the ability of our healthcare services to cope with the demands of the elderly. The elderly are, due to the nature of ageing, evidently in need of more care than younger generations, but the issue that is creating the most problems is that life expectancy is increasing at a higher rate than ‘healthy life expectancy’as per the International Longevity Centre. A healthy life expectancy can be defined as the amount of time spent in good health (ibid.) If this is not increasing at the same rate as ‘general’ life expectancy, this means people spend more years of their lives in ill health and so place a greater strain on the healthcare services.
The concept of ‘active ageing’ (Foster & Walker, 2015) refers both to the physical definition of activity and to the ability of the elderly to participate in a society socially, culturally and economically. It emphasises the link between this ‘activity’ and health. It seems that in order to promote health in the older generations and thus increase the healthy life expectancy of the population (and so decreasing the strain on healthcare), we must focus on maintaining activity in these generations. In terms of policy implications, this means providing frameworks that enable the participation of the elderly in wider society. This could include schemes such as more extensive bus routes, which often are the only mode of transport for isolated older people, and organised social interaction between the elderly and different sectors of society as demonstrated in the recent Channel 4 programme ‘Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds’ (2017).
It is vital we improve the average healthy life expectancy if we are to be able to relieve the health services, even to a small degree. The second challenge I will discuss that is presented by an ageing population is the conflict between younger and older generations in terms of political and social interests. This has been particularly highlighted in the UK in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum on our membership of the European Union (EU). The result of the referendum was a narrow victory for the ‘Leave’ campaign, but the age divide in voting trends was stark. Only 29% of 18 – 24 year olds voted to leave, while 64% of the over 65s backed the option (Moore, 2016). This sparked widespread discussion in the media about older generations having a negative impact upon the younger generations’ future. Many cited the phrase used by Nigel Farage: “we want our country back” to emphasise the fact that while older people might view leaving the EU as a return to normality, membership of the union is the only thing younger people have ever known. It seems, on the issue of Brexit, the young and the old are divided.
There has also been great criticism from the ‘Millennial generation’ of the ‘baby boomers’ as being irresponsible and leaving the housing market impenetrable to the next generation.
The media has played upon these apparent rifts between the generations to create an atmosphere of intergenerational conflict and a feeling of resentment for much of the younger population. This conflict portrayed by the media cannot be productive for a cohesive society, and it seems to neglect the fact that nearly all people, no matter their age, share some key objectives. I do not think it would be controversial to suggest that economic prosperity, security and care in old age, a stable environment and a good education are fairly universal desires. It seems to me that the disparity between age groups is not in fundamental goals, but in opinions on how best to achieve these goals.
One way to minimise this intergenerational conflict is to simply facilitate an open dialogue between the young and the old. The creation of a political and social environment where members of different generations could discuss issues as equals would be a hugely positive influence in an arena where older and younger populations are so often pitted against each other.
Ageing is an inescapable element of our modern society, but we must now strive to deal with the challenges it presents. If the elderly are to be a healthy, active and integrated sector of the population (which is crucial considering their growing numbers), we must create frameworks within our society that allow them to participate in a positive manner.
BBC News (2015) UKIP leader Nigel Farage: ‘We want our country back’, Available at: BBC news, (Accessed: 9 April 2018)
Phillipson, C. (2013) Ageing. Oxford: Polity Press (Chapter 2)