Opinion: Living longer still seen as a problem

Old coupleBy Alan Walker, Professor of Social Policy and Social Gerontology, University of Sheffield, and Director of the New Dynamics of Ageing Research Programme

26 January 2011

It is one of the most profound transformations that human society has ever witnessed; life expectancy over the last century rose by two years in each decade, or one week in every five. Almost unnoticed in the UK, the symbolic crossover between the numbers of people over the state pension ages of 60 and 65 and those under 16 happened in 2007. This was the inevitable consequence of the twin drivers of population ageing: increased longevity and declining fertility. Like the rise in life expectancy the decline in fertility is a long-term one which started in the 18th century.

Today the most remarkable aspect of this momentous socio-demographic shift is the rapid rise in the numbers of very elderly people. The numbers of people aged 85 and over have doubled in the past 25 years, to 1.4 million, and will increase more than two-fold in the next 25. The fastest expanding of any age group is centenarians: there were barely 100 a century ago and there are 10,000 now.

So what does population ageing mean for society? It is common to see in the Press highly simplistic projections of future public spending on long-term care for mainly frail older people. But these figures merely extrapolate current needs to a larger future population instead of asking what would be the impact of a strategy to improve health and well-being before people reach late old age? The evidence on this front is that there is substantial scope for such action. In particular it would go with the grain of the increases in healthy life expectancy, or disability-free life expectancy, that parallel the extension of life.

Unfortunately, however, the pace of the rise in disability-free life expectancy is not keeping up with that of life expectancy itself, unlike some other countries, and urgent action is needed to rectify this anomaly. If the prevention of ill-health and disability in later life is not made a national priority there is a risk that the opportunity of a healthy old age will be denied to increasing numbers and that the gap in life expectancy between rich and poor will grow.

At present those who live in the poorest neighbourhoods in England die seven years earlier than people in the richest ones and the average difference in disability-free life expectancy is 17 years. These are not genetically caused differences but primarily socio-economic ones which can be addressed by policy interventions. Population ageing also means workforce ageing: employers have fewer younger people to choose from and more older ones. Thus, in the absence of mass immigration, future productivity will depend on how well employers can sustain and utilise the skills of an ageing workforce.

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