The UK’s Ageing Population: The need for a ‘Connected Society’ as part of the solution

Thursday, January 9, 2014
Beth Davies

As 2013 passes and we enter a new year, we will toast to future success amidst unwritten possibilities. But one thing remains certain: the challenge of our ageing population will only become more onerous, whether it features on the Coalition’s resolutions list or not.    

According to data from the Parliament website, today’s 10 million over 65s will look more than manageable to policy makers in 2050 who will face a staggering 19 million in this category, representing 25 per cent of the population rather than today’s 16 per cent. Even this statistic is less modest than it appears at first glance, given that the number of over 80s within this total is projected to almost double by 2030 alone, and will reach 8 million by 2050.

‘Ageing in the 21st Century’, a report co-authored by the UNFPA and HelpAge International last year, has predicted that by 2066, the UK will boast half a million centenarians. One third of babies born in 2012 are expected to celebrate their 100th birthday. It is safe to say that an ageing population is an issue that will only become more challenging with time. As with all that requires major societal adjustments, if we are to make the transition “smooth”, the groundwork must be prepared now in the knowledge that a single, all-encompassing solution does not exist.

Immigration into the UK remains a necessary component if we are to achieve a healthier ratio between workers and dependents. The UK must learn from Japan’s current shortcomings. In 2010 the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare revealed that Japanese nursing homes and hospitals needed 2 million professional carers to look after the country’s 30 million elderly, but managed to attract only 1.3 million. Such discrepancies between supply and demand will no doubt occur in the UK, and not only in the health sector.

The government must therefore be actively aware of the need to make the UK an attractive hub for immigrants. In this context, recent developments must be viewed with concern. The BBC website has acknowledged the Bulgarian ambassador to London, Konstantin Dimitrov’s comments that our immigration system is perceived by Bulgarians to be ‘very restrictive’, and Romanian embassy official’s statements that despite immigration restrictions being lifted in the new year, most Romanians would prefer to live in Spain or Italy.

Of course, uncontrolled immigration would be counter-productive, but given the need to meet our ageing population needs, it would serve the UK well if greater care was taken to balance tough talk over immigration with raising awareness of the benefits it brings.

Is it the economy, stupid? Continuing to provide state benefits and pensions at today’s average would require an additional spending of £10 billion a year for every additional one million people over working age. A strong national economy is therefore vital in order to provide resources needed for an ageing population, however setting aside money is both an unreliable and insufficient solution. The structural threat of returning to cyclical “Boom and Bust” economics has not been addressed since the Financial Crisis of 2008. (Read Ben Harris-Quinney’s article here).

UK growth figures are dependent upon a strong financial sector, yet prior to 2008 UK banking was in a state of relative international decline due to the challenge from the East, and the trend continues today. In a globalised economic age of diminishing state economic control, to rely on a generous state budget is asking for trouble. But more than this, by expecting a declining number of workers to carry a heavier economic burden in times where disenchantment from politics is already rife, tension could reach a level where passive acceptance of political demands becomes less commonplace.  

If the state cannot tackle the problem alone, the logical next step is to delegate to the local community. This is reflected in the founding principles of the Prime Minister’s ‘Big Society’, based upon volunteerism and a sense of civic cohesion. Without a culture of “good neighbourliness” – whether it be putting out your elderly neighbour’s bins or fetching their shopping - it is difficult to imagine how dealing with the everyday challenges of an ageing population will be managed.

Civil society must be empowered to work in the places the state cannot. From this perspective, recent data from the Ipsos Mori study on ‘Trust in other people and institutions’ has arguably struck a blow to the heart of a solution based on ‘Big Society’ values. It found that just 46 per cent of the generation born after 1982 believe other people can be trusted compared with 73 per cent of the pre-war generation – and the level of trust amongst this generation has decreased since research was first carried out on them in 2002.

If people do not trust one another, there is little reason to expect them to voluntarily help one another. There is a clear danger of a political disconnect between young and old. Without a connected society, it is unrealistic to believe there can be a ‘Big Society’ solution to our ageing population.

A key aim of the government must therefore be to reconnect society. The 2013 report by UNFPA and HelpAge International has stressed the need to change the mindset and societal attitudes towards older persons, from welfare recipients to active, contributing members of society. This advice is sound: it is our natural inclination to lend a helping hand to those seen to play a productive role in society.

Reciprocity matters. Indeed, Julia Unwin Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggested at a recent conference that using a different vocabulary, and referring to older people as ‘elders’ might produce a more positive image by implying they have something to give, even if not necessarily economic. The government’s support for the Care Bank and Care4Care schemes which enable neighbours to help the more frail members of communities to remain living independently in their homes is encouraging, and capitalises upon our enlightened self-interest, where hours volunteered are banked by individuals to be regained in their own old age.

Moreover, a focus on societal values is vital to shore up a sense of civic responsibility. ‘Faithful Citizens’, a report published by Demos, found that religious people in the UK are more likely than non-religious people to volunteer regularly in their local community, in part because faith underpins an ethos of community service.From this finding, it could be suggested that if the government worked to more widely disseminate such principles (which do not require an abandonment of secularity), the challenge of an ageing population – insurmountable without the help of individuals – will be far closer to resolution.

An ageing population cannot and will not be managed in one fell swoop. Given the insufficient nature of all possible solutions, many approaches are necessary. But what is important is that steps are taken now. Connecting society by changing mindsets has historically been the key factor in producing meaningful changes, yet simultaneously the most challenging and time consuming. It is only through early trials and tribulations that an effective, multi-dimensional approach will emerge before the challenge becomes too great.

Beth Davies is a media intern at the Bow Group.