27 Apr 2020
Our ageing society is both our biggest social change and our greatest achievement.
Longer lives are an opportunity not just a burden. Politicians need to sign up to a manifesto for ageing better.
Our ageing society is both our biggest social change and our greatest achievement. It is made up of two separate trends:
This extension of life is a social revolution that already offers many of us more years of wellbeing. Yet public discourse about our ageing has focused on the negative story of the increasing costs of health, care and pensions from a larger older population and largely missed the great opportunities our longer lives offer us. We need politicians and all political parties to recognise these opportunities and commit to making it possible for everyone to benefit from a longer life, not just the privileged.
There will of course be significant increases in demand and cost for health and social care services over the next decade, only partly driven by a larger older population. This has been forecast by many studies including the House of Lords report I chaired.
But politicians have been slow to accept this and to recognise it requires much more funding. Politicians have failed to explain to the public that additional funding is necessary, that it can be afforded, albeit with additional taxation, and that it should be paid for fairly across the generations.
Above all they have failed to explain that there are great opportunities for individuals and society from longer lives and it is worth planning and paying for them.
But the biggest public policy challenge of our longer lives is not funding the NHS and social care but the shocking social gradient in ageing. Lives that are much longer are already greatly enjoyed by some sections of society - but not by others.
Poorer people and poorer communities live shorter lives and become ill or disabled earlier. Poorer people are disproportionately affected by high rates and premature chronic ill health conditions and live less happy later lives. The lives of people in Blackpool are 10 years shorter than those in Kensington; they get ill and disabled earlier, and they fall out of work more often.
Addressing the striking inequalities of wellbeing in later life ought to be the focus for all politicians – but it has been surprisingly ignored across the political spectrum and treated as if it was an immutable fact of life. What do we need to do to address this?
The evidence is clear what makes for a good later life. If, as individuals, we sustain good enough health, are not too worried about money, live in a decent home, have good relationships and a sense of purpose, then we are much more likely to have a happier later life. But far too many people miss out on these opportunities. So what changes are needed so that many more will benefit?
Public debate about our ageing society mostly focuses on people when they are already old. But the key point is that it is too late to address a good later life when we are retired; our prospects for enjoying our later lives are greatly affected by what happens before we are old. Four factors negatively affect this:
We need a cross-party political commitment to close these causes of the inequalities in wellbeing, life expectancy and disability free life expectancy so that more people live longer, are financially secure and are in good enough health to enjoy their longer lives.
Because what we do before we are old greatly affects our prospects for a good later life, public policy and individuals need to focus more action on this life stage - roughly people aged between 50 and 70 - and to focus again on those at risk and on the changes that matter most for a better later life.
These are the key elements for an agenda to reduce the waste of many later lives being lived with poor wellbeing and to close the shocking inequality gaps. The issues will need the persistent support of all parties and all politicians at national and local level. The Centre for Ageing Better is committed to work with others over the next decade to promote the actions needed to bring these about.
It should be unacceptable that in some communities people die 10 or more years earlier and that many people become prematurely ill, old and disabled when others are having the time of their lives at the same age. We know much of what we need to do to change this - now we need the political commitment to do so.
The prize will be a happier, healthier society, a more productive economy, more fiscally sustainable public services and significant increases in wellbeing across our society.
NOTE: This article originally appeared the Fabian Society's report 'Take Good Care: improving support and wellbeing in later lives'.
 Ready for Ageing? House of Lords 2013 and The Long-term Sustainability of the NHS and Adult Social Care, House of Lords 2017
 A New Generational Contract. Final Report of the Intergenerational Commission, The Resolution Foundation, 2018
 Centre for Ageing Better 2015