Paul Burstow writes… Realising the potential of an ageing society

Senior citizens dancing pensioners Some rights reserved by StevenM_61Last summer, Nick Clegg asked me to chair a working group looking at the issues of an ageing society and how Government should respond.

The UK population is living longer and today there are more people over the age of 65 in the UK than there are children under 15. This change is a direct consequence of public policy, of bearing down on preventable deaths. But an unsophisticated debate about the impact of ageing has portrayed this as a disaster. Our everyday language tends to stigmatise, portraying ageing as a threat and older people as burdens hogging resources and hoarding assets. Yet the reality is that we are all ageing, everyday, and the concerns of an ageing population are very clearly issues that must concern every one of us. Whether you’re in your 20s or your 60s it is becoming increasingly clear that we all need to be much more concerned about our health, our wellbeing, our finances, our housing, our pensions, and that, if we neglect these, it will have long term consequences for our own old age, and that of our children.

And as populations age, older people have an even bigger contribution to make in society – as consumers, as employers and employees, as carers, volunteers and civic leaders. Roles, responsibilities and discourses urgently need to change. We need to actively encourage older people and learn from their skills for the benefit of all. With the rising age of retirement this is more important than ever, but we are missing opportunities to share skills and experience between employees, to ensure continuity of corporate memory and embed the learning of generations. What more should be done to address this?

On pensions, Steve Webb deserves much credit for protecting the incomes of current pensioners – and introducing a simpler and more sustainable – system for younger generations. Our ‘Triple Lock’ manifesto policy has protected the value of the pension and there have been no cuts to means-tested benefits, but this is an area where there is ever increasing debate. What should be our way forward?

On housing we constantly hear that we have a housing crisis, and we do, but current projections suggest that 60% of household growth will be amongst the over-65s . Public policy needs to recognise this, and our goal must now be to increase the supply of adaptable general housing. We also need more innovation in adaptive technologies and design – we need to move away from our associations of ageing with decline and negativity and embrace the opportunities and possibilities – for individuals, communities and the economy. All ideas are welcome.

We need to tackle the current stereotypes on ageing, and realise the potential of an ageing society, and we need your help to do it. Today I am launching an online consultation which seeks views on the issues which our working group have identified as key to planning for our changing demographics. Please follow this link to let us know what you think:

* Paul Burstow is Liberal Democrat candidate for Sutton and Cheam and was the MP until the dissolution of Parliament on 30th March.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Stuart Mitchell 13th Mar '14 - 6:51pm

    In my part of the world (Manchester) healthy life expectancy is only 55, so forgive me if I don’t share your enthusiasm about the huge amount of extra contribution the over 65s can make to our society. In fact, nationally the average HLE for males in England is only 63.2 years. This idea the government likes to put about of people living healthily and working in to their late 60s and beyond is still a fantasy for most.

  • Stuart Mitchell, there are only certain wards in Manchester where male life expectancy is as low as 55. Female life expectancy is higher even there. It is much higher in other parts of Manchester and the figure of 55 is unusually low. It is true that the average life expectancy for Mancunians is about fifteen years less than for people in Surrey.

    How do I know all this? Well I spent some years working In epidemiology when the thengovernment used to frequently point to the differences between Manchester and Surrey,to,illustrate health inequalities.
    Also, I was born in Wytheshawe and now Iive five minutes from Surrey, which maybe accounts for the fact that so far I have reached 61. 🙂

  • Just had a crack at the survey – shame so much of it is written in impenetrable NHS jargon!

  • Stuart Mitchell 14th Mar '14 - 5:11pm

    @John Tilley
    Thanks for the info. However I was referring specifically to HEALTHY life expectancy, which is a different measure. The average HLE for men in Manchester (all wards) really is as low as 55. Shocking, but true.

    @Ian Sanderson
    I’m not suggesting that older people (yes, I’m aware they exist) should not be in the thoughts of policy makers. I was just making the point that their seems to be a slight air of unreality when government types start making sweeping generalisations about our old folk living happy and productive lives well beyond 65. Of course there are plenty of lucky people for whom this is true, but the ONS figures suggest that for a majority it is not an accurate picture at all. We need to keep that in mind instead of blithely assuming that 80 year olds are all out line dancing like the people in Paul Burstow’s photo.

  • @ Stuart Mitchell, I am surprised but there is no reason why I should disbelieve you. I am aware of the difference between life expectancy and healthy life expectancy. But I am not going to check the stats because that would be too much like going back to work. I was lucky enough to retire when I was 59 and I am more than happy with that. In general I have sympathy with the line you are taking. There is more to life than work. The myth spread by politicians of all parties that we can delay pensions and keep people working as long as possible because they live longer should be exposed for what it is.

  • A Social Liberal 14th Mar '14 - 7:55pm

    Stuart, you are quite right, this government does have unrealistic opinions on what older people can do. They are expecting older people to be able to rush into burning buildings in the way their younger firefighting compatriots will be able to do, they expect older policemen to rush into pub brawls with the youth and vigour of younger PCs and they expect older teachers to have the alacrity, the verve and vigour of those starting off in the profession.

    Unfortunately, whilst some might be able to carry on in ways that the young are most able to, this government does not seem to recognise that when overexerting body and/or mind for years, a price is paid and by the mid fifties those bodies and minds are a shadow of their former selves.

    In this, the government should look to the armed forces, who recognise that service people in their late twenties (never mind people twice that age) are not, in general, able to perform in the way that younger men and women do – and make allowances for this.

  • Stuart Mitchell 15th Mar '14 - 9:23am

    @A Social Liberal
    Absolutely. Add nurses to your list. My wife was pretty wrecked physically and mentally after a mere 20 years ICU nursing and had to get out for her own health. Many of her colleagues were in a similar state. It’s ludicrous expecting these people to work to 68/69 and beyond (the retirement age for nurses used to be 60). More people may be living to old age but that doesn’t mean the average 70 year old today is some kind of superman or superwoman compared to the 70 year olds of a few years ago.

  • Simon Banks 16th Mar '14 - 3:30pm

    There are dangers in A Social Liberal’s argument. Yes, it’s foolish to assume that relatively old people will still be able to do things they could when they were 25, but it’d discriminatory to assume that they can’t, just as evidence that, say, fewer women than men or fewer ethnic Irish than ethnic Chinese in the total population are able to accomplish something should never lead to policies which rule out people in those groups from being considered for a job, a volunteering role or whatever. By that logic I at 67 I wouldn’t be allowed to walk 25 miles in hill country with a pack on my back, or possibly even to be chair of my local party. For any demanding job there are tests. For firefighting, for example, these include tests of physical strength.

  • A Social Liberal 16th Mar '14 - 4:31pm

    I am not suggesting that older people couldn’t or shouldn’t (as a grouping) carry on with the various activities I highlighted, my arguement is that it shouldn’t be assumed or demanded (as the fire service and nursing [thanks Stuart] etc are currently trying to assert) that they are automatically fit for the job, even in their middling years.

    As I said before, the armed forces knows that past 28 servicemen and women are not always able to pass the fitness tests and so are given extra time, and by their early thirties are given as much time as they need. After 22 years they are allowed to retire with a pension.

    Compare and contrast that with what the fire service, the Education Dept and the Health Dept are starting to demand of their staff. For financial reasons hey wish to keep everyone on, whether they are past their best or not which is why they are attempting to change the terms and conditions.

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