Not retiring: Why we need a joined-up vision for our ageing society

As a new report calls for a cross-governmental group and a select committee to bring together the different strands of the longevity agenda and hold Government to account. It’s about time.

Older woman works at home on laptop


With the news full of reports of labour shortages, immigration curbs and ongoing health issues leading to people dropping out of the workplace or reducing their hours, it is perhaps a good time to draw attention to some of the underlying problems that have not been addressed properly for many years. Just as the Covid inquiry is likely to find a lot of gaps in the UK’s planning for pandemics of all kinds rather than just flu-related ones, there has been a lack of preparation for the kind of demographic changes we are seeing today. Partly this is due to politicians’ tendency to focus on the short term, to procrastinate on the longer term issues and therefore to be buffeted around by crisis after crisis. The same applies to any number of other problems, including climate change.

Since I started in health and social affairs journalism back in the 1990s and no doubt before this, issues related to our ageing population have been discussed in report after report with little effective action taken. Mainly the can has been firmly kicked down the road. Now we are seeing what that means.

A report this week by the International Longevity Centre looks at many different areas that need to change, from housing to health. But politics is at the core. It calls, for instance, for a Parliamentary Demographic Change Select Committee to be set up to audit the government’s progress on the longevity agenda. And it says a cross-governmental inter-ministerial group focused on future generations needs to be appointed, to be led by a cabinet minister and to report regularly to Parliament. Its remit would be “to consider demographic change, the implications of technological change and environmental sustainability, over a long-term horizon”.

This is surely vital. Putting the longevity agenda on the regular Parliamentary agenda means that it will hopefully get talked about by politicians, will force them to think about the longer term and it may increase the pressure for useful legislation.

Many of the issues behind the labour shortages we currently face are to do with a failure to link up different issues. Those include how we work.There needs to be a focus on good quality, flexible work that will mean people can stay in work as they age, but also that work doesn’t make them ill before they reach their mid 50s. The now shelved Employment Bill which was built on an in-depth look at the future of working back in the mid teens was an attempt to think longer term, but it didn’t get anywhere. It has been replaced by lots of Private Member Bills and a much narrower focus from Government on the way we work. That is a huge missed opportunity.

Our research shows that, while there has been a lot of attention of late to those in their 50s and over who have dropped out of the workplace, it is the generations under them where the focus needs to be. People in their 40s are facing multiple challenges from caring responsibilities to the cost of living crisis. Many are renting and have little security. Significant numbers are regularly skipping meals. They face a whole set of health, social and economic challenges in the future and many of these will be interlinked.

Government is supposed to have an overview of these kind of major issues – to make the links and to provide the vision. At the moment, all they seem to be doing is scapegoating those coming in from outside the UK, many of whom are working in the health and care sector which has huge vacancy levels. Those people have no recourse to public funds, pay extra to access the NHS and exorbitant visa fees. They are hardly a drag on UK finances. Yet this is where we are, the news agenda dominated by farcical policies instead of debating the crucial issues like health, care, inequality, climate, that we need for a livable future.

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