Policy-makers are not keen on futurology. Nor, it seems, on
history lessons, at least where the welfare state is concerned.
Social policy has almost always lagged behind significant changes
in society, largely because politicians are consumed with resolving
today’s problems rather than pre-empting tomorrow’s.
On no issue is this lag more apparent than on the ageing of our
society. Decades after the first apocalyptic warnings about a
burgeoning older population, we are still wondering how public
policy ought to respond.
Part of the problem is that polemic diagnoses fail to stand up to
scrutiny. The “demographic timebomb” has long since lost its
potency as a description of where we are heading. It is true that
in fewer than 10 years the number of people older than 65 will
exceed those younger than 16. But dire warnings that this will
create a dangerous imbalance between a dependent older population
and those who are still of working age overlook dramatic
improvements in the nation’s health.
We cannot assume that as the population ages more people will need
care. Although life expectancy has increased, the older population
is fitter for longer. So the period between the onset of dependency
and death is not necessarily changing.
If sweeping generalisations exaggerate the impact of an ageing
population, should we stop worrying about it? No. Polemic debate
too often obscures significant challenges, in particular how the
needs of certain groups should be met. Older people are not part of
a homogeneous group. As historian Pat Thane has documented, they
have always been divided by gender, class, income, race and indeed
by age. The overall impact of an ageing society is likely to be
less important than the particular impact for certain groups. How
equipped is our welfare state to meet the needs of a growing number
of poor older pensioners, for example?
But public policy challenges brought about by an ageing population
do not start and end with dependency. The stereotype of older
people as burdensome encourages us to focus on the potentially
negative results for future pension provisions and welfare
services. In doing so, we ignore the growing contribution older
people will make to society in paid and unpaid work, cultural life,
decision-making, lifelong learning and community development.
In particular, the role that older people play in looking after
dependants – caring for partners, children and grandchildren – is
often underestimated. Evidence suggests the commitment to mutual
support across the generations remains high and that this support
involves people in the younger generation being dependants as much
as those in the older generation.
One contribution that is especially hidden from view is the
home-based care provided by older relatives for those with learning
difficulties. Despite the increase in independent living, most
people with learning difficulties still live in the family home. As
their own life expectancy increases, a growing proportion will
continue to live with much older family members.
Some years ago a study undertaken for the Joseph Rowntree
Foundation found that older family carers of relatives with
learning difficulties often lived in fear of the future. It was not
their own dependency on others that they feared, but how to ensure
that they could still care for their relatives. They wanted support
to enable them to continue with their caring role and to plan for
their relatives’ future, but found that practical barriers made it
difficult for them to do so.
This demographic challenge demands greater support from health and
social services for elderly carers. Part of what is required is
practical help and information, but the relationship between paid
providers of welfare services and older people who are caring for a
younger relative may also have to be rethought.
Our tendency to assume that old age is synonymous with dependency
discourages us from paying enough attention to the contribution
that an increasingly ageing population will make. We should assign
the “demographic timebomb”-type diagnoses to the dustbin of history
and instead put our energies into considering how best to make the
most of the varied opportunities and challenges an older society
Lisa Harker is chairperson of the Daycare Trust but
writes in a personal capacity.