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Communities | State of Ageing in 2020

The first lockdown has seen a surge in community activity – but in many cases the people who are struggling to get by are missing out.

Woman preparing food in a community kitchen

The State of Ageing in 2020 is an online report with multiple chapters, capturing a snapshot of ageing today and considering our future prospects. Below, you can get further detail by clicking on the 'Analysis' buttons and you can hover over graphs to access the data.

Forging and maintaining meaningful connections with other people is vital to our wellbeing at all ages

The data in this chapter shows that, generally speaking, those in later life are more likely to feel connected to their community than younger people. There are deep inequalities, however, with the poorest and those in poor health most at risk of being disconnected as they age.

The pandemic has highlighted the risks of these inequalities. The expansion of both mutual aid groups and volunteering has rightly been celebrated as the silver lining of COVID-19. But while helping others is known to improve wellbeing, opportunities to participate in our communities – and reap those benefits – are not equally available to all. And, at a time when more of us have come to rely on digital connection, those who are digitally excluded risk becoming further isolated from the world.

We want more people to live in connected communities: places with the social and physical infrastructure which enable us to forge thriving social connections and do the things that matter to us. This section begins by looking at how connected to our communities we feel, and the opportunities we have to participate. Then, we turn to the digital infrastructure – which has become even more prominent as an enabler of social connections during the pandemic, particularly for those most vulnerable to COVID-19. Finally, we turn to physical infrastructure – the places and spaces that facilitate connection, and the transport that enables us to get out and about.

Key facts:

  • COVID-19 has improved our sense of connection – but mostly for people who are better off. Around half of people aged 50-69 who are ‘living comfortably’ feel more connected to their community than they did before lockdown, compared to a third of people who say they are ‘struggling to get by’. 
  • There has been a steep decline over time, for every age group, in the proportion of people who report that they ‘definitely’ have someone to rely on. Less than two-thirds of people aged 50-64 said this in 2018-19, compared to 80% in 2013-14.
  • One in three have become more involved in helping out locally since the pandemic hit. But this change has not been evenly distributed across the population. Those with more socio-economic advantage were more likely to say they had become more involved.
  • Those potentially most in need of help were least likely to access it: a quarter (24%) of people aged 50-69 who are finding it quite difficult to get by said they were not aware of local voluntary groups, compared with 16% of those living comfortably.
  • Use of the internet by older age groups rose during COVID-19 but there are still over 3.7 million people aged 55+ who have never used the internet, with inadequate digital skills most cited as the reason.  

What needs to happen:

National and local government and funders need to invest in the physical, social and digital infrastructure which enables everyone to live in more connected communities. This means:

  • Investing in shared spaces, high streets and accessible, walkable communities which enable people to build their social connections, participate in, and contribute to, their communities.  
  • Safeguarding the sustainability of civil society through local strategic partnerships, through offering core cost and micro-funding opportunities to individuals, and through organisations working collaboratively and inclusively in their communities.
  • Supporting programmes which develop the capacity and capability of all sectors to take more age-friendly and inclusive place-based approaches.
  • Ensuring local government is resourced and accountable for an inclusive place-shaping role, with diverse voices able to influence decisions which affect their communities.
  • Improving access to digital infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, and ensuring every area works to support people and places to access the benefits of digital inclusion, while providing offline alternatives and support with digital skills.

Community connection and civic participation

The proportion of people who feel they belong to their neighbourhood increases with age

Analysis
  • One proxy for how connected to our communities we feel, is whether or not we feel we ‘belong’. Overall, the older we are, the more likely we are to say this.
  • However, it is worth noting that the steepest increases are happening among younger age groups. The number of 16-24 year olds agreeing with this statement has risen by 13 percentage points since 2013-14. There is no such increase among older people.
  • This reported ‘belonging’ varies across the country and is highest in the North of England. The region with the highest proportion of people aged 50-59 who feel that they strongly or fairly strongly belong to their immediate neighbourhood is the North East (69.2%). The region with the lowest proportion is the West Midlands (60.6%).

The reasons behind this increasing sense of ‘belonging’ as we age are unclear: it could be that we spend more time in our neighbourhoods as we age, that we become more embedded in a place over the course of a lifetime, or perhaps because older people have often been traditionally provided with activities to support their community engagement.

None of these is immutable. Internal migration within the UK (people moving between different local authorities) is increasing, predominantly taking place among the under 40s, but rising again in the late 70s, perhaps as people move to be close to family. The activities to build connection may also be on the wane: the provision of day centres, for example, has fallen significantly since 2010. So we cannot assume that older people will remain rooted to the places they have lived for a long time, or become complacent about the provision of the social infrastructure which allows new social connections to build. Nevertheless, these figures offer an important counterbalance to the narrative of a loneliness crisis among older people.

In mid-life, people from Bangladeshi, Pakistani and African backgrounds are the most likely to say they belong to their neighbourhoods

Analysis
  • Of people aged 50-69, those of Bangladeshi origin are most likely to feel that they belong to their neighbourhoods (79.9%) but this is the case for just over half (52.0%) of non-British White people.
  • Just 59% of 50-69 year olds of Caribbean origin feel they belong to their neighbourhood.

Older people are the most likely to chat to their neighbours – particularly in the North East

Analysis
  • The proportion of people who chat regularly to their neighbours increases with age. More than three-quarters of people aged 50-64 (78%) chat to their neighbours (more than just to say hello) at least once a month. This increases to 87% of people aged 65 and over, and compares with just 58% of people aged 25-34.
  • There are sizeable regional variations within this. Almost three-quarters of people (72.7%) aged 50-69 in the North East talk regularly to their neighbours, the largest proportion of any region in England. The lowest proportion is seen in London, where just 62.6% of people aged 50-69 talk regularly to their neighbours.
  • Overall, people in rural areas report feeling more connected than those in urban areas. For example, a higher proportion of 50-69 year olds in rural areas than in urban areas feel trusting of their neighbours (84% versus 72%). But this difference disappears among people aged 70 and over. Among both rural and urban inhabitants, 86% feel trusting of their neighbours.

This data shows a clear picture of connectedness across the age spectrum prior to the pandemic: older people, in general, felt the most connected to their neighbourhood. 2020, however, has seen everyone’s relationship with their neighbourhood change, as many people have spent more time at home, and as the need for – and desire to give – informal help to the people around us has increased. This has had a positive impact on people’s feelings of connectedness, but it has not been felt equally by all groups.

Most people aged 60 or older feel more connected to their neighbourhood now, than they did pre-lockdown

Analysis
  • In July, as we were just emerging from the initial lockdown, almost half (46%) of 50-69 year olds reported a greater sense of belonging to their neighbourhood or local area than they did before the pandemic. That increased with age, from more than a third (37%) of 18-29 year olds to three in five (60%) people aged 70 and over.
  • And half of people (49%) said they felt more trusting of their neighbours, which again increased with age, from 40% of 18-29 year olds to more than half (54%) of 60-69 year olds. There was been a particularly large increase among people aged 70 and over, almost three-quarters of whom (71%) feel more trusting of their neighbours than they did before the pandemic.

It is unclear what explains this increase in feelings of connectedness: whether the act of giving or receiving mutual aid, the feeling of shared experience, or the fact that people were spending more time in their homes and local communities. But something positive seems to have taken place which it would be valuable to try to nurture and preserve.

People who are struggling to get by are less likely to feel connected

Analysis
  • That same lockdown survey, however, revealed clear inequalities. Three-quarters of 50-69 year olds who are living comfortably say that they know more people they could count on if they were ill or unable to leave their home, compared with fewer than half (42%) of people in this age group who are finding it quite hard to get by.
  • And, almost three-quarters (71%) of 50-69 year olds with no long-term conditions or illnesses now know more people they could count on to help out if they were ill or unable to leave their home, compared with just over half of people (54%) in this age group for whom long term conditions or illnesses greatly affect day-to-day activities.

People with long-term illnesses are less likely to feel they belong

Analysis
  • A higher proportion of 50-69 year olds who have no long-term conditions or illnesses feel trusting of their neighbours (79%) than people in this age group who have long-term conditions or illnesses that greatly affect their day-to-day activities (64%).
  • Similarly, of people aged 50-69 with no long term conditions or illnesses, two-thirds (64%) have a good level of contact with others in their local area, but this is true for less than half (43%) of 50-69 year olds with long term conditions or illnesses that greatly affect their day-to-day activities.

This data shows that those people who are living comfortable lives also enjoy good connections and a sense of belonging to the places in which they live. But for those who are struggling to get by, their challenges are compounded by, and possibly lead to, a lack of connection in their neighbourhoods. It is striking that people with long-term conditions or illnesses that greatly impact their daily activities – people who are perhaps likely most in need of support from those around them – are likewise less likely to feel connected to their neighbours. This demonstrates how the various facets of our lives that shape our wellbeing intersect and amplify one another.

In mid-life, people don’t go out because they are too busy. In later life, health is the biggest barrier

Analysis
  • Between the ages 50-64, the most common reason for not going out socially is being too busy, followed closely by financial reasons.
  • With increasing age, a health condition or illness becomes increasingly dominant as a reason for not going out socially. This is cited by more than half (51.9%) of people aged 70 and older.

If poor health prevents people from going out socially, this puts them at risk of loneliness and isolation, in turn increasing the risk of further adverse health impacts. We want to improve people’s health so that fewer people feel prevented from going out socially by their health. We also need supportive environments that enable people to go out in spite of their health conditions and communities in which people have places to go to.

There has been a steep decline over time, for every age group, in the proportion of people who report that they ‘definitely’ have someone to rely on

Analysis
  • In 2018-19, the age group with the lowest proportion of people who definitely have someone to rely on was 50-64 (62%). For 25-34 year olds, it was 73%.

In every age group, women are more likely than men to have someone to rely on

Analysis
  • After the age of 25, there is a decline in the proportion of both men and women with someone they can definitely rely on – to a minimum of 67.5% of women and 56.8% of men aged 50-64.
  • Almost three-quarters of women aged 75 and older have someone they can definitely rely on, compared with just 62% of men.

That a higher proportion of women than men in every age group report that they definitely have someone to rely on likely reflects differences in forming and sustaining relationships over time. Still, almost a third of women and almost a half of men in mid-life don’t have someone they can definitely rely on.

Overall, volunteering – whether formal or informal – is fairly consistent across the age groups. But it has become less common, particularly among the oldest

Analysis
  • Prior to the pandemic, between 57% and 70% of people in all adult age groups said they had done some form of volunteering in the last year, whether in a formal setting, through a club or organisation, or offering informal support to someone outside their families.
  • However, there has been a statistically significant decrease since 2013-14 in the proportion of people aged 50-64 who had done any formal or informal volunteering at least once in the previous year (from 72% to 63% of people). The reasons for this are unclear, but may include increased rates of labour market participation among this group.

Regular volunteering – particularly informal – is most common among older age groups

Analysis
  • There is an increase with age, up to the age of 74, in the proportion of people who volunteer formally at least once a month: almost a quarter (23%) of 50-64 year olds volunteer formally at least once a month, compared with almost a third (31%) of 65-74 year olds, a statistically significant difference.
  • There is, likewise, an increase with age in the proportion of people who volunteer informally at least once a month and, although there is a slight drop off among those over 75, a third (33%) of this age group still takes part in regular informal volunteering.
  • In 2019/20, the proportion of people aged 55-64 who did any informal volunteering at least once a month (36%) was statistically significantly higher than for all younger age groups.

The less deprived an area you live in, the more likely you are to volunteer – although the gap is smaller among regular volunteers

Analysis
  • Overall, people who live in the least deprived areas are the most likely to volunteer. However, comparing the most and least deprived areas, the gap in the percentage of people who volunteer at least once a month (ten percentage points) is smaller than that for the percentage of people who volunteered at least once in the last year (14 percentage points).
  • Our survey of 50-69 year olds found a similar socio-economic gradient, although we asked a more general question about ‘helping others’. Whereas 42% of 50-69 year olds with the highest level of education are involved in helping others in their local area, this is the case for just over a quarter (29%) of those with no qualifications.
  • Similarly, 39% of 50-69 year olds who are living comfortably are involved in helping others in their local area, compared with 22% of those who are finding it quite difficult to get by.

There are multiple barriers which prevent people from volunteering, which particularly impact on marginalised and deprived groups. Our research shows that the key barriers to volunteering include cost, language barriers, digital exclusion and lack of confidence.

One in three people say they have become more involved in helping out people in their local area since the pandemic hit

Analysis
  • About a third of people of all ages say that since the pandemic they are now more involved in helping out others in their local area (31% of people aged 50-59 and 30% of people aged 60-69).
  • More than a third (37%) of people aged 70 and over in rural areas are more involved in helping out others in their local area as a result of the experience of the pandemic, compared just a quarter (26%) of those in urban areas.
  • But there is variation in the distribution of people who now help out more: over a third (37%) of 50-69 year olds with the highest level of education (degree or higher) are now more involved in helping out others in their local area as a result of the experience of the pandemic, compared with a quarter (24%) of those with no qualifications.

This year has seen a huge upswell in mutual, voluntary community activity, with people in local areas reaching out and organising themselves in order to support their most vulnerable neighbours. This has undoubtedly had a large impact, but we must also be aware that this impact has not been felt equally by everyone. Indeed, these new forms of support may not even have been visible to those who needed them most.

Not everyone is aware of the support available

Analysis
  • Over the period of lockdown, almost one in five (19%) people aged 50-59 were not aware of local voluntary groups that offer help and support. Awareness was highest among those aged 70 and over, but still one in ten people in this age group were not aware of support.
  • There is considerable regional variation in this: among people aged 50-69: it varies from a little over one in ten (12%) people in the South West to almost a quarter (23%) of people in the West Midlands.
  • In keeping with other measures that suggest more connectedness in rural than urban areas, people who live in urban areas are more likely than those in rural areas to be unaware of local voluntary groups that offer help and support: 19% of people aged 50-69 in urban areas vs 14% in rural areas agree strongly that this is the case.
  • A quarter (24%) of people aged 50-69 who are finding it quite difficult to get by said they were not aware of local voluntary groups, compared with 16% of those living comfortably. This suggests that the people in this age group who might have been most in need of support were the least likely to know how to get it.

Digital connections

The proportion of older people who use the internet regularly has grown rapidly

Analysis
  • Although internet use is still much lower among older than younger adults, it has been growing rapidly. The proportion of people aged 75 and over who used the internet in the previous three months has more than doubled since 2012.

But there are still over 3.7 million people aged 55 and over who have never used the internet

Analysis
  • Of the almost four million people aged 45 and over who have never used the internet, almost all – 3.7 million – are aged 55 and over.
  • But there are still over 250,000 people under 55 who have never used the internet. This group makes up a fifth of people who do not use the internet regularly. So, while internet use will continue to grow among older age groups, as the generations for whom the internet has been a part of their everyday lives grow older, digital exclusion will still remain a concern.

There are many people in their 70s, 80s and beyond who are digitally capable, and numbers are increasing. But age remains the biggest predictor of whether or not someone is online. Non-internet users are concentrated in particular groups: 71% of those offline have no more than a secondary education, and 47% are from low-income households. More than half (54%) of 50-69 year olds from BAME backgrounds would like to use the internet more, or for more things, compared to a quarter (26%) of White 50-69 year olds.

Not only does this digital exclusion impact people’s ability to be connected, it also of course has financial implications. Workers who are digitally enabled earn, on average, an additional £2,160 per year compared to workers who are not digitally enabled.

Lockdown made digital communications more important for people in mid-life

Analysis
  • Among 50-70 year olds, three quarters (75%) say they were making video calls more often during lockdown and three in ten (31%) said they were emailing more than they did before the pandemic struck.
  • A survey by Lloyds Bank found that three times more people aged 70-79 registered for online banking during lockdown compared to the same time last year. In our own survey with NatCen, 89% of 50-59 year olds said that the internet was important to allow them to talk to friends and family; 62% to contact the GP and local health care workers; 70% for shopping; and 86% for surfing the internet for news and discussion.

COVID-19 may have accelerated the trends in internet use. Clearly, many people in mid- and later-life are using the internet to stay connected more than they did before. But while ‘zoom quizzes’ have been a staple for many of us in getting through lockdown, our survey also suggests that older people were the least likely to get involved in such activities. At least 90% of people under 60 (and at least 96% of people under 40) said the internet was important for them for talking to friends and family during lockdown, compared to just 82% of people in their 60s, and 71% of people aged 70 and over. Again, this suggests that those who might benefit most from new forms of social connection and support forged during lockdown were among the least likely to access it.

Older people say they don’t use the internet more because their IT skills aren’t good enough

Analysis
  • More than a third of 50-59 year olds don’t use the internet more than they do because their IT skills are not good enough. This proportion almost doubles to three in five (61%) people aged 70 and over.
  • More than a quarter of 50-59 year olds don’t use the internet more than they do because of concerns about fraud and sharing personal data and almost one in five don’t have access to good enough broadband.

Social and physical infrastructure

Spending by local authorities on key community services and activities has fallen sharply since 2009-10

Analysis
  • Since 2009-10, overall local authority spending on services that support community connection has fallen sharply. Spending on community centres and public halls has fallen by over 40%, and spending on community development has more than halved.
  • Overall, council spending reductions have hit more deprived local authorities harder than wealthier ones. This is because more deprived local authorities are more reliant on money from the central government grant – which shrank by 92% between 2013/14 and 2018/19 – while richer local authorities can rely on more income from fees and local tax revenue.

For the most part, we do not know the number of civic and public spaces – the places which physically facilitate social connections – that are available to people, and how those numbers have changed over time. We also don’t know how much the activities in and around these places – the clubs, the talks, the exhibitions – have changed. We know that local authorities made redundancies over the last decade, and we know that the number of local authority staff – including many people who make these places and activities work – has fallen. But we can’t be precise about the scale of those losses.

In other words, we know that the squeeze on public finances – and particularly local government finances – has impacted seriously on the availability of the places and activities which make up a large part of the social infrastructure of the UK, but we don’t have a national picture which shows exactly how. Where these things are counted, they are not necessarily counted in the same way in different parts of the country.

We can, however, use the decline in local authority spending on cultural and community activities as a proxy. This does not necessarily directly correlate to the scale of the decline in such activities. Local councils have pushed hard to make efficiency savings over the last decade: trying to provide the same level of service for less money by, for example, moving them into the voluntary sector, or changing the way they are run.

But while there is not a one-to-one relationship between local authority spending and the availability of facilities and activities on the ground, the very limited evidence we have on what that money is spent on suggests that at least some of these activities have been directly scaled back.

There are nearly 500 fewer libraries in England than a decade ago

Analysis
  • One of the few local authority services we have some national-level data for is libraries, so we can use it as a proxy to estimate what might be happening in other services. Overall, the number of libraries in England fell by 14% (equivalent to 470 libraries) between 2009-10 and 2016-17. Given continued straightening of council budgets, it is unlikely to have risen since then.
  • The falling number of libraries does not fully represent falling access to libraries. If a library stays open, but is open for fewer hours, it is less accessible to the community. Between 2009-10 and 2017-18, the number of libraries open 30 hours or more a week fell by 17%, while the number of libraries open fewer than 29 hours a week increased 6%.

Libraries are key sites of community connection, as well as an important civic and educational resource for everyone. We can also use them as a proxy for the availability of community services. There has not just been a fall in the number of libraries, but a large shift in the provision of libraries from paid staff to volunteers – again, a pattern which is repeated in many other local community and neighbourhood services.

We can think of this picture of what has happened to libraries as small window into a broader phenomenon which is very visible to people at a local level. Without more quantitative data, it is crucial that the voices of communities about the loss of facilities which support our social infrastructure is heard within the national-level policy discussion.

The importance of parks and green spaces has been highlighted by the experience of lockdown

Analysis
  • Half of everyone aged 50-59 and almost half (45%) of those aged 60 to 69 said that local parks or green spaces had been very important to them during the lockdown period.
  • A quarter of people aged 50-59 (25%) and 60-69 (24%) went to a local park or green space daily during lockdown and another quarter went between two and six times a week.
  • But there was variation in how important parks were to people by various measures of socioeconomic status: for example, parks were very important during lockdown to more than half (55%) of 50-69 year olds in managerial and professional occupations and a third of those in semi-routine and routine occupations.
  • Of 50-69 year olds who said that they had particularly valued the fact that they had outdoor space at home during lockdown, more than a quarter (27%) went to a local park or green space daily compared with 13% of those for whom not having their own outdoor space had been particularly difficult during lockdown.
  • A quarter of White people aged 50-59 (26%) went to a local park or green space daily during lockdown compared with just one in ten BAME people in this age group. And whereas more than a quarter (28%) of people aged 50-69 with the highest level of education went to a local park or green space daily during lockdown, this was the case for a little more than one in ten (12%) people in this age group with no qualifications.

Our research threw up an apparent contradiction: those who found it difficult not having their own outdoor space during lockdown were less likely to use their local park than those who had – and valued having – their own outdoor space. Whatever the reasons behind this observation, inequalities of access risk entrenching inequalities of outcome – in our mental and physical health, as well as general wellbeing.

As with all age groups, most of the journeys taken by older people are in a car

Analysis
  • At all ages, car travel – as driver or passenger – is the most common form of transport.
  • Rates of active travel – walking or cycling – falls with age, as does most public transport use. But bus use increases after 50. People aged 70 or over take an average of 62 bus trips a year.

Our ability to access places, spaces and people in our communities is significantly dictated by how easily we can travel to them. As the above shows, cars and walking remain our key mode of getting around throughout our lives. Bus travel rises but the use of other forms of public transport falls. Removing barriers to public transport use, including simply making it available, is key to retaining equitable access to our communities throughout our lives.

Over a quarter of people in their 50s, 60s and 70s did not use public transport at all in 2018-19

Analysis
  • Although the proportion of people in all groups aged 50 and over who did not use public transport in 2018-19 is lower than it was in 2002-03, only among people aged 70-79 is there an overall downward trend in public transport use.

As we get older, we are more likely to cite ‘health’ as our reason for not taking public transport

Analysis
  • The most common reason people age 50 and over give for not using public transport is that they simply don’t need to. Well over half of people say this.
  • But inconvenience or lack of availability are also frequently cited: 52% of people in their 50s give one of these as a reason.
  • ‘Health’ is given as a reason for not using public transport, with increasing frequency as people get older. This may reflect problems with the accessibility of our public transport networks.

There are many reasons to want to increase public transport use – most notably environmental ones. From the perspective of the age shift in our population, it is crucial that we all have access to the public transport we need to get around, so we can maintain our independence and prevent isolation as we age. That ‘inconvenience’ is cited as a key reason for not using public transport among people in mid- and later-life is therefore a concern: this is not merely a matter of personal preference, but a matter of inclusion vs exclusion.

This increase in people citing the unavailability of public transport services coincides with changes in policy and funding. The availability of buses, for example, has fallen since 2009-10: since then, vehicle miles travelled by local authority buses have more than halved – from 247 million to 114 million in 2017-18 – while commercial bus miles have remained largely the same. In 2017-18 alone, 96 local authority bus routes in England were cut, and 147 were amended or reduced. If the slack is being taken up by more flexible, community transport options, then we could see better options available for many older people than fixed bus routes, particularly those who cite ‘health’ as their main reason for not taking public transport. But right now, the numbers suggest that this is not what is happening – not, at least, at scale.

Living in places that we feel connected to, and that enable us to remain connected to each other, is fundamental to our wellbeing. We need action from central and local government, and from civil society, to ensure that the benefits of giving and receiving help, of spending time in community spaces, and getting out and about in our communities can be enjoyed by everyone.

The State of Ageing 2020

Summary: The State of Ageing in 2020

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