A quarter of millennials think it’s normal for older people to be unhappy or depressed, and two thirds don’t have a friendship with an age gap of 30 years or more. These findings, released by the Royal Society of Public Health earlier this month, paint a picture of stark inter-generational divides in the UK. It’s one where over 65s are often seen as costly burdens and young people as feckless job-hoppers who ought to ditch the avocado habit. While there is some way to go, the Resolution Foundation’s recent Intergenerational Commission report counters the latter argument. It lays down convincing evidence that the contract between older and younger generations is breaking down – be that in millennials’ prospects of home ownership or opportunities for good quality and stable work. But at the other end of the spectrum, are we doing enough to challenge the narrative on the costly burden of ageing? As generations are divided up by letters and stereotypes, we’ve lost sight of ageing as a process. Action is often concentrated at one end of the life course and predominantly in one sector.
Are we measuring the right thing?
Ageing has become shorthand for the burden of ‘old people’. It’s often measured through old age dependency ratios (the ratio of working age population to those of pensionable age). This measure dictates that old age and declining productivity start at 65 despite dramatic change across areas including life expectancy, patterns of disease, technological advance, working practices and social norms. Older people’s contribution through work, volunteering and informal care is largely ignored. A more helpful focus would be on the number of years people are spending in good health as they age. This would reflect the flexible nature of ageing from person to person. It would also move the conversation beyond the over-65s alone to how we enable current 6, 16 and 60-year-olds to reach their older years in a healthier and happier state. We are seeing worrying trends and wide inequalities in healthy life expectancy and multi-morbidities. A longer life shouldn’t have to mean living through more years of illness, but it requires a focus on both pre- and post-65.
Beyond health and social care
So old age and falling productivity doesn’t necessarily start at 65. But regardless of when it starts and whether fewer years can be spent in better health, there is still a problem of numbers. Our current health and social care system will struggle to contain demand with twice as many people aged over 85 in the next 25 years. The important debate on how these services will manage has scarcely been out of the news in recent weeks. While necessary, it can draw attention away from other parts of people’s lives that provide purpose and opportunity into old age – from involvement in community groups to age-friendly workplace practices. The ageing story must continue to move beyond cost containment in health and social care to the wider action required across sectors. This would help to shift the focus from ageing as something to be managed to how it can be a positive process.
A new story on ageing
Through this lens, policies that prevent age discrimination to those that develop early years education would all come under the umbrella of ‘ageing policy’. Better still, it could lead to greater focus on inter-generational opportunities that provide dual-benefits, for example, through revamped apprenticeship models that bring old and young together. Our changing world of work requires a workforce that can adapt its skill set through life-long learning. This means transferring skills and knowledge across generations and debunking the myth that education and training are the preserve of the young. New approaches must respond to a context of demand and supply pressures that extend far beyond ageing – be it funding pressures, the rising expectations of the public or socioeconomic inequalities. Ageing is one piece of a very complex jigsaw. A fresh outlook is needed on public service delivery more broadly, one that responds to the unique set of challenges and needs of local places and people.
The current ageing story can lead to action that is too little (confined to health and social care) and too late (over the age of 65). A new story wouldn’t leave these important areas behind, but it would recognise that ageing is something that affects us all. Rather than distancing ageing as an end-point to be managed, it would describe a process that can be positive and empowering. In doing so, it could help to shift the narrative that leads a quarter of my generation to think unhappiness and depression are part and parcel of growing old.