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Group of people in mid-life sitting in a bar

If we don’t properly measure quality of later life, how can we expect to improve it?

The Centre for Ageing and Demography was set up by the Office for National Statistics to investigate gaps in our understanding about people’s quality of life.

John Pullinger was the UK’s National Statistician until standing down this summer. In this guest blog, he emphasises the need for good data and evaluation to help identify policies that work for everyone.

When it comes to ageing, and the radical demographic shift we’re seeing in our population, there are some big issues to be addressed. More people need to be in fulfilling work, living in decent accessible homes, with good health and living in connected and inclusive communities.

Without the statistics to measure our progress and uncover the hidden inequalities that exist within society, we risk leaving people behind.

When I chaired the United Nations Statistical Commission, we considered how to measure progress on a global level. There is a planetwide appetite to do better, and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are clear that, by 2030, we should all be doing more to ensure that no one is left behind.

The question is, how well is the UK doing in meeting these goals? How can we track progress and measure success in a way that really reflects what happens on our streets and in our communities?

To give everyone a good later life, we must measure inequalities

The key to better statistical measures is to provide a breakdown of the data to identify the factors that often get hidden within statistics. Doing this highlights the inequalities and barriers individual people face in their lives, such as gender inequalities, ethnic differences and geographical barriers.

At the UN, I raised ageing as one of these invisible characteristics that is hidden within data, and now the UK has been asked to be the global centre for fixing this.

Operating impartially and free of political control, we at the Office for National Statistics are producing the numbers that matter the most for the country – on the economy and business, people, population and communities. We are mobilising the power of data to help make better decisions and improve lives for some of the most vulnerable in our society.

Last year we set up the ground-breaking Centre for Ageing and Demography to investigate and overcome some of the current gaps in our understanding. We have also built relationships with global partners such as China and Japan, as well as African countries in which populations are rapidly ageing.

In doing so, we are learning how to better measure quality of later life.

Changes in society, technology and legislation mean that more data, in richer and more complex forms, is available than ever before. This offers a huge opportunity and we are committed to constantly innovate to better understand our society, our economy and our own lives.
We need to find better ways of predicting future demographic trends

The need for more granular data to uncover inequalities is a core focus of statisticians across the public sector. However, our ability to look ahead with predictive data and our understanding of the recent stalled improvements in life expectancy are two areas which need much more consideration.

When I was asked about the most interesting finding from the national census, the thing that really struck me was how people whose primary occupation is looking after a sick relative are often located in old mining towns like Merthyr Tydfil. It wasn’t something I would have predicted but is unsurprising when the data prompts you to think about it.

This is just one example, but it illustrates that we need to be better at predicting the long-term trends so we can have adequate policy solutions. Once we have the data, we can figure out how to support people to live better later lives.

Another disturbing trend is the slowing in increases of life expectancy across the country. Initial increases in life expectancy were largely due to public health improvements reducing death rates. In more recent years, this trend has continued thanks to medical advances keeping people alive for longer and therefore extending life expectancy in later life. But despite a decline in smoking, more health interventions and better cancer treatments, since 2011 there has been little or no improvement in life expectancy.

It is difficult to determine why this has happened, and as a country we need to work to understand these causes to ensure everyone can live a long, healthy life.

Once we properly measure our quality of later life, we can improve it

At the ONS, our job is to provide clear and timely insight, targeted on the issues at hand. Changes in society, technology and legislation mean that more data, in richer and more complex forms, is available than ever before. This offers a huge opportunity and we are committed to constantly innovate to better understand our society, our economy and our own lives.

Statistics are essential to guide policies and highlight inequalities and we want to make sure we are providing evidence that helps government, businesses and charities to make informed decisions which can improve the lives of the most vulnerable and identify future problems.

While the twentieth century's advances in public health, nutrition and medical science have given us the gift of a long life, we want to help make sure that everyone can enjoy these extra years. With better statistics the country will be equipped to make better decisions and improve lives for the twenty-first century.

The State of Ageing in 2019: Adding life to our years

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