One of the most significant social changes facing countries across the globe today is the ‘ageing population’ phenomenon – a shift in the distribution (increasing the median age) of a country’s population towards older ages.
Whilst the UK’s population increases apace – from 50 million in 1951 to 63 million in 2011, heading to a currently projected 80 million by 2051, the proportion aged 65 years old and over is increasing too (and at an even faster rate). In the UK today, there are 80% more people who are 65 yrs old and over than there were in 1951. In 2011, there were 10.5 million people aged 65+ (around 1 in 6 of us). The latest projections are that 19 million, around 1 in 4 of us, will be 65+ in 2051.
The terms ‘ageing population’ and ‘ticking time bomb’ have become interchangeable in the media and a national angst-fest has taken hold, mainly driven by the limited sense of how we are going to address the challenges an ageing population raises, not least “where’s all the money for social and health care and pensions going to come from?”.
To move forward, policy makers need to be able to estimate the future level of demand an increased number of older people will make on public services. It’s not proving easy as there is not enough data – not enough research – to go on. Take social care alone. The 2011 Dilnot Commission highlighted the lack of a robust statistical base either for analysing the current social care situation or for monitoring and evaluating the effects of future changes in policy.
Then there is always degree of uncertainty around wider population projections. Traditionally, population growth has been underestimated. In fact, population projections can never be true forecasts, they are predicated on things staying on broadly the same path, factoring in things we know will change along the way, but things like the UK’s future obesity, migration and fertility levels may all act out in ways which are not yet foreseen and affect projections.
What’s happening in government? a White Paper on social care reform is due out in Spring 2012. In parliament, consultations have just ended as part of the first parliamentary inquiry – by the House of Lords Committee on Public Service and Demographic Change - into whether our society, policies and public services are ready for an ageing population. The committee’s report, due at the end of February, will further define the problem and propose ways of taking matters forward. Interim findings are that we are “underprepared”, not least for NHS health care and social care shortfalls. The committee is “doubtful that efficiency savings will be enough” which suggests the need for much bigger structural change.
Let’s not get too anxious though. Firstly demographic change is gradual, we are not going to wake up in 20 years time and find we are all old. And there is plenty of time to revisit the population projections as we move forward. Also the cost of it all depends on the denominator –how many parts the total the government has to spend is made up of and where it comes from. If it’s based on Gross Domestic Product (GDP), it will have grown and pension costs, themselves growing, may end up as a smaller fraction. The Office for Budget Responsibility’s estimates need not, you could argue, occasion panic.
There is clearly still a lot to explore and to quantify. But in the knowledge that a workable way forward will have to be found (after all, what’s the alternative?), let’s not lose sight of the good news aspects of this story.
The Lords Committee inquiry acknowledged that an ageing population is “one of the greatest gifts our society has ever experienced”. Medical advances and better living conditions have brought us great benefits, including increased longevity…and if longevity is a prize, many more of us will be hitting the jackpot. A recent projection is that by 2051 there will be approximately 327,000 people who are 100 years old or more, up from 14,000 in 2011. And with continued medical advances (and probably extended years of working!) we should be able to hope that many of those extra years will be good quality life. Surely some reason to celebrate?.
NB All of the figures can be found on the ONS website – see National Population Projections, 2010-based projections.