Social Issues Spotlight: The ageing population

In the UK the population is ageing. Currently, there are almost 12 million people aged 65 and over (18% of the population) and numbers in this age group are expected to grow by more than 40% within 20 years. 

With age being a risk factor in the current pandemic this topic is rising up the agenda, often with a sole focus on the vulnerabilities of age. An ageing population, however, is complex and comes with a range of both challenges and opportunities. Here are five things that are often overlooked.

 

1. Experiences of ageing are diverse and unequal
Across the country people do not all have the same experience of getting older; there are large inequalities in later years in terms of wealth, health and access to services. For example, many people over 65 have accumulated wealth through the rising value of assets; since 1996 house prices have risen by more than 280% (over 500% in London), however at the same time 1.6 million older people are living in poverty. This financial inequality impacts health, with wealthier areas seeing longer life expectancies. In 2013-2015, the highest life expectancy in England for men at age 65 was in Kensington and Chelsea (21.4 years). The lowest was in Manchester (15.8 years).

There are also large differences between genders, with 50% more women than men in their 50s having no private pension, and between people of different ethnic backgrounds, with 29% of Asian pensioners and 33% of Black pensioners facing poverty compared to 14% of White pensioners.

“As we get older, the steady accumulation of a lifetime of advantages or disadvantages, together with differences such as in our ethnicity, in where we live and in our income, results in vastly unequal levels of health, wealth, happiness and security in later life” Centre for Ageing Better

 

2. Older people are therefore a complex set of customers
Although it is unequally spread, on average the 55 to 64-year-old age group holds the highest total personal wealth in Britain. Because of this over 50s account for 47% of all consumer spending. The complexity of people over a particular age however is not always understood and they are often overlooked or treated as a single customer group. Because of this many products created for ‘older people’ are focused on utility and not on catering to the individual tastes. For example, footwear that meets orthopaedic requirements is often restricted to specific styles, or devices that make a bathroom accessible are often exclusively made of white plastic. Feeling ignored as a potential customer can make some older people feel isolated or left behind, directly impacting wellbeing.

‘You feel invisible. At the perfume counter the staff ignore me because I am an older woman with a stick. But if I’m with my daughter they are there in a flash. I have the money, I want to buy mascara and make-up, but the staff ignore me. They don’t think someone like me wants to wear mascara.’ Female, Newcastle, Age UK research 

 

3. Older workers are key to the economy

When we think of older people we often imagine that we are referring to a general group of retired people, however, over 50s make up nearly 31% of the entire UK workforce. Over time this percentage is increasing; it is estimated between 2014 and 2022 13.5 million new job vacancies will have needed to be filled in the UK, with only 7 million young people available to fill them. There are around 1 million people aged between 50 and state pension age who are not working but would like to be. Yet looking for work at an older age can come with significant barriers: Ageism from employers; a lack of flexibility to accommodate health or caring responsibilities; and limited options for continued adult learning. By 2030 there will be more workers over 50 than under 30, so investing in the skills of the older workforce and supporting them to develop or change their career will be vital to the economy.

 

4. Housing is a key area where older people’s needs are not met
Housing is a big issue for an ageing population. Although the current generation of over 50s are more likely to be homeowners than younger people, this does not always mean they are living in homes fit for purpose. In fact, 93% of homes in England do not have all four features that would allow them to be accessible for all (level access to the entrance, a flush threshold, sufficiently wide doorsets, and a toilet at entrance level). This means that as people age they may require different homes. When we consider that 85% of people aged 65+ want to remain living where they are, desirable accessible homes, not just ‘specialist housing’, is key. The issue is further complicated by the rising numbers of renters. As current generations struggle to buy a home, insecure housing and high rents are likely to become a big challenge for an ageing population.

“[Housing for older people is based on the premise that] we can cram their lives into 48 sq m and they don’t need room for hobbies or having family to stay, you don’t entice people out of their three-bedroom family houses by offering them a small box.” Maria Brenton, a founder of Older Women’s Co-Housing (OWCH)

 

5. Changing family dynamics mean community is vital to an ageing population
The family dynamics of people who are reaching older age have changed. The most recent 10 years of data show a 28% fall in the number of divorces between 2005 and 2015 across the population as a whole, but older people are bucking the trend. In the same period, the number of men divorcing aged 65 and over went up by 23%, and the number of women of the same age divorcing increased by 38%. Additionally, people are now having fewer children, with 23% of men aged 65-74 in 2032 expected to be without children. This suggests that as the population ages we could see more people in later life who are living alone or without family connections, who would more strongly depend on community initiatives to feel connected and supported.

 

So what can businesses actually do?

For customers

  • Explore how older customers are segmented by your business. Use the Centre for Ageing Better’s ‘Later life segments’ as a framework to develop segments that recognise the diverse customers within this group.
  • Work with charities to understand how to innovate products and services to meet the needs of ‘older’ customers, see our Social Insight project with Experian as an example of this.
  • Partner with charities to develop your staff training, and support your colleagues to make customers who are over 50 feel valued.

For employees and jobseekers:

  • Use the Centre For Ageing Better’s guide on being an Age-friendly employer.
  • Make sure training opportunities, such as apprenticeships are extended to people approaching older age. See Barclay’s example of an over 50s apprenticeships for inspiration.
  • Work with WiseAge a London based charity that specialises in supporting workers over 50 into roles. Use their expertise to understand the massive range of skills that these workers could contribute to fill gaps in your workforce.

For communities:

  • Get involved with a campaigning charity, like Independent Age, and put your business voice towards making the UK the best place in the world to grow old.
  • Mobilise staff to get involved in intergenerational projects, like those run by the Together Project, which address isolation and loneliness for people of all ages.
  • Support community-based organisations which recognise the inequality that some older people face, organisations like local Age UK’s can enable you to get involved with projects which directly impact those who most need support within your local area.

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