When Joan Collins was asked, after marrying for the fifth time
last year, whether she was worried about the 32-year age difference
with her new partner she replied: “If he dies, he dies.” Her
confident assertion of her right to continue choosing her future
her own way stands for a generation now growing old disgracefully.
All around us we can see the signs that the sweeping social change
we associate with the baby boom generations of the 1950s and 1960s
continues unabated as middle age and beyond are redefined.
Still, why should this be a challenge? Surely a generation of
assertive, independent older people is what policies on pensions
and health care was intended to create. The political problem is
that the choices that more older people are making and the lives
they are choosing to live challenge the preconceptions about how
government and society at large view them.
But, while older people are changing, the public services they are
offered remain rooted in the old paternalistic welfare culture.
Stand back and look at what the local and central state offers to
older people. Tea dances. Day centres. An increasingly worthless
state pension. A health service where staff treat you like a child
– asserting an unwarranted intimacy in addressing you by your first
name. The pensioners who went through the general strike and
endured the depression are being joined by succeeding generations
who never had it so good in the 1950s, have lived well since then
and have no intention of being hard done by now.
As with many social changes, we can see it more clearly if we look
at the US. One of the most important pressure groups there is the
American Association of Retired People. It is so powerful that
reform of social security, the US state pension system, is
described as a “third-rail” issue – touch it and you die. And the
saying goes that in every neighbourhood the shabby building in need
of repair and decoration is the local school, in contrast to the
modern and well-maintained services for seniors (even the language
shows far greater respect for the wisdom and experience of older
But the signs are in the UK too. Think of the storm that engulfed
the Labour government when it raised pensions by 75p a week and the
conspicuous lack of gratitude shown by pensioners when, the
following year, the chancellor raised pensions by the single
largest amount ever. In this light the debate about free personal
A political storm is gathering. An ageing population does not
simply bring different demands on public services. It means a
different public – and a radically different electorate. Older
people are growing in force twice over. First, there are simply
more every year. But, perhaps more importantly, they form a larger
proportion of the electorate. While local and general election
turnout falls steeply among the under-35s, it remains constant
among the over-55s. Political parties have spent recent elections
adopting increasingly absurd postures to woo the youth vote. The
real contest is elsewhere. Whichever political party can fashion
the right appeal to older voters across the board will be set fair
Older people have the power and a new welfare settlement seems
inevitable. The continuing decline in the value of the basic state
pension with the projection of an eventual fall to about 10 per
cent of average earnings is not just morally indefensible: it will
be politically unsustainable.
Equally, as people are living longer, the state pension age of 65
becomes an anachronism. There was a time when a worker could expect
a couple of years of life after retirement at 65; now 10 or 15
years is normal. A change in the retirement age, perhaps by raising
it to 70, would allow an increase in the state pension to more than
£110 a week on current figures. Payment at such a level could
trigger accompanying changes. It would allow the end of
means-testing for the minimum income guarantee and the pension
credit. This would free resources for a greater increase in the
state pension, perhaps to a level approaching one-third of average
earnings. Still not a king’s ransom but adequate to live on and a
good platform for any individual savings.
Such a guarantee is likely to have to be within a wider package of
reforms. Here we return to long-term care. The case for free
personal care is overwhelming in principle. It is an example of a
devastating cost that falls on a few at random. It is too costly
for each of us to insure against individually but costs little when
it is done collectively.
Electorally, the case for free personal care may also become
overwhelming. Equally, an expectation of a longer working life
would have to be matched by effective action against ageism in
employment. But this will be necessary anyway because changing
demography alters the basis on which we organise our labour
markets. Professions ranging from accountancy through nursing to
teaching are all built on the assumption that you can recruit
entrants between the ages 18 to 21 and keep them for the rest of
their working lives.
Yet, within the next 10 years, our society will make a fundamental
demographic shift in that, for the first time, older people will
outnumber young people.
In 2000, there were nearly 1.3 million more children younger than
16 than people of state pensionable age. From 2007, the population
of state pensionable age is projected to be greater than the number
of children, and by 2025 is projected to exceed it by nearly two
At the very least, the shrinking number of young people will lead
to increased competition for them and higher wages for the lucky
youngsters. At best it should lead to a an attempt to transform
Another impact of raising the state pension age to 65 for women
between 2010 and 2020 is that the total UK workforce increases in
size from 39 million in 2011 to 40.8 million by 2021.
It remains to be seen whether the shift in the balance of the
generations will lead to a new cleavage in politics. However, the
ageing population will accelerate demands for more personalised
services. A senior in one day centre was asked by a visitor whether
she enjoyed the activities provided. The answer was blunt: “No, but
you have to do them to get the lunch.” The combination of political
power with purchasing power will sweep away such provision.
John McTernan is a freelance writer and
The big debate
The report of the New Visions project – From Welfare to
Wellbeing: the Future of Social Care – will be published on 17
October and launched at National Social Services Conference in
Starting this week, Community Care is publishing a series of
five articles, based on the chapters of the report, to engage the
social care workforce in a debate about future services. The series
continues as follows:
- 26 September. Gerald Wistow, director, Nuffield Institute, and
Jane Tunstill, professor of social work, Royal Holloway, University
of London: Future Aims and Objectives of Social Care. l 3 October.
Liam Hughes, chief executive, East Leeds Primary Care Trust: The
Future Workforce of Social Care.
- 10 October. Anne Davies, independent policy analyst: Structures
and Accountability for the Future of Social Care.
- 17 October. Liz Kendall, associate director, Institute for
Public Policy Research: Conclusions.