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Elderly man and grandson sitting on grass with football.
Elderly man and grandson sitting on grass with football.

How do we bridge the UK’s age divide?

Not spending time with people of different age groups has an impact on stereotyping, prejudice and ageism.

Our Director of Evidence, Catherine Foot, writes about the benefits of intergenerational mixing and how we can come together to bridge the UK's age divide. 

At the end of January, the social enterprise United for All Ages published a report calling for urgent action to end what it calls ‘age apartheid’, the issue that we are all spending less time with people from other generations, outside of our own families. There are others who have given the issue of intergenerational mixing attention in recent months too. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration published a report called ‘Healing the Generational Divide’ in May 2019 looking at exactly the same issue. 

So are we living in an increasingly age-segregated society? 

Physical age-segregation is a long-term trend that has been occurring throughout the last century, as things like pensions and retirement began to limit the presence of older people in workplaces, and access to universal education grouped children together for much of the year.

But our residential age-segregration has increased at pace in recent decades in particular. Within our cities, inner cities are getting younger, while outer suburbs age. And overall, urban areas are significantly younger than rural ones. We often talk about our country’s ageing population, but this immensely important national demographic shift is in fact happening at very different rates depending on where you live.  

In terms of social segregation, there are fewer shared, community spaces than there have been, where people of all ages can mix, share hobbies and activities, and access services together. Leisure centres and community centres are declining in number, and over 120 public libraries closed their doors in 2018. 

What explains trends in age-segregation? 

Steeply increasing house prices in recent decades is part of the explanation. If you look across the country, residential age segregation increases as housing affordability decreases. Wealthier older home-owners increasingly live in more affluent surburbs, while younger people rent in inner-city boroughs. And social housing allocation policies in many areas have also tended to group young families in certain places and older people in others. Beyond the housing market, there are labour market factors at play, too, with the search for jobs and economic opportunities drawing younger people away from rural areas. 

What impact does age-segregation have? 

There is some research to draw on here, but overall this isn’t an area replete with data and evidence. Nevertheless, I think that age-segregation is an increasing cause for concern. 

Not spending time with each other risks reducing social integration, damaging community cohesion, and makes stereotyping, prejudice and ageism easier.

It also brings a host of practical and economic problems, if local areas continue to diverge in their mix of people working and not working, or accessing care and health services. 

What should we be doing about it? 

If we are to foster a more age-mixed, intergenerational society, I think that action is needed in particular at three levels.  

First, we can encourage projects, both at grassroots and national level, that work with the explicit intention to bring people of different ages together. Perhaps fuelled in part by Channel 4’s irresistably life-affirming documentary from a couple of years ago, Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds, there has been an explosion in nursing and residential homes introducing weekly music clubs mixing local toddlers and schoolchildren with residents. And there are increasing examples too of initiatives like Homeshare, that aim to house older and young people together, to the financial and social benefit of both. 

Second, we can invest in community initiatives that might not be explicitly about age-mixing, but are nevertheless fundamental to achieving it. I’m thinking here for example about our need for more shared, community spaces to spend time together and interact. 

And third, there are a suite of bigger, underpinning structural changes we need to see across housing, economic and employment policy. We need to build more diverse, affordable housing that will suit more of our needs as we age. We need to encourage economic growth beyond our major cities. And we need to create workplaces that provide fulfilling work for people of all ages.  

The casual insults that fling so easily between the generations on social media – the ‘OK, boomer’, the ‘snowflake’ – are, I believe, not generally representative of how we feel about people of different generations in our own families. But they are perhaps a warning sign of how easily we can ‘other’ people we don’t know, and don’t spend time with. 

Our society is changing. By 2030, one in five people in the UK will be aged 65 or over. But if we are all to reap the benefits of that success story of our longer lives, then acting to ensure people of different ages can work, rest and play together throughout their lives must be part of the solution. 

The State of Ageing in 2019

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Catherine Foot
Director of Evidence (job share)