Life expectancy has been growing steadily for over half a century; men can now expect to live up to a ripe age of 78, but not one to be beaten, women are hanging on that little bit longer at 82. The UK has now reached a point where there are more people over State Pension age than children. By 2020, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) predicts that people over 50 will comprise almost a third (32%) of the workforce and almost half (47%) the adult population. These statistics have increased debate, but unfortunately, legislators often talk about ‘the problem’ of an ageing population – predicting increases in the cost of pensions, health and social care. Yet evidence suggests that this depiction of older people as a ‘burden’ is far from accurate.
Research taken by WYVS (renamed the Royal Voluntary Service) found that older people made a positive net contribution to the UK economy in 2010. By taking together the tax payments, spending power, caring responsibilities and volunteering effort of people aged 65-plus, they calculated that older people contribute almost £40bn more to the UK economy than they receive in state pensions, welfare and health services. Moreover, the research suggests, this benefit to the economy will increase to £77bn by 2030 as the ‘baby boomers’ enter retirement.
Research from the Royal Voluntary Service is a first attempt to quantify the role of older generations. ‘However, that contribution should not be seen simply in monetary terms because the contribution made by older people has the capacity to change, enrich and better lives‘.
Older people make up the biggest proportion of not only care receivers but care givers in Britain. It is not uncommon that a grandparent is asked to take care of a grandchild so the state does not take that child into care. Although most older people see looking after their grandchildren as a joy rather than a duty, this requires a complete change of life. Older people often have to give up employment and can descend from well paid jobs into a form of poverty. Many others are increasingly having to take care of grandchildren as more mums choose to return to work after having a baby and many parents are working more and longer hours. According to the 2009 British Social Attitudes Survey nearly two thirds of grandparents are stuck with/ blessed with looking after their grandchildren. For most grandparents, this involves only a small number of hours each week but, for a substantial minority, the commitment is much greater, with 26 per cent looking after their grandchildren for 10 or more hours a week.
Older people also have a wealth of skills that could benefit their communities. For some, retirement is the trigger for volunteering for the first time, but many others start volunteering long before this point. Grandmentors is one such volunteering programme that harnesses the energy and experience of volunteers over 50 years old to support young people in how to find work, stay in education, or take up training. This is just one example of the older generation providing help and support for the young.
People often forget that volunteering comes in two forms – formally, through groups and organisations but also informally by giving unpaid help to those outside their immediate families. An ICM poll found that 65% of older people regularly help out elderly neighbours and are the most likely of all adult age groups to do so. Alan Hatton-Yeo, chief executive of the charity Beth Johnson Foundation, has warned against underestimating the extent of informal volunteering:
“Research suggests that an over-emphasis on formal volunteering may significantly underestimate the input of older people in their communities and indicates that many older people prefer the flexibility of informal volunteering which is seen as a natural activity in their locality.”
Working people of pension age have nearly doubled over the last two decades, reaching 1.4 million in 2011. Since the beginning of 2008, the number working past retirement age has leapt by 40 per cent. In terms of contribution to the public purse, the taxes paid by people aged 65 and above now amount to £45 billion, approaching twice the total the Government receives from council tax.
The House of Lords is one place were the level of debate is superb, not only because they are less concerned with party politics but because many of the Lords have the experience and knowledge that comes with age. In one such debate the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams noted: ‘To speak of an “ageing population” is, in one sense, simply to utter the most banal of all cliches, because ageing is something that we are all doing whether we like it or not. Younger people may forget that they are ageing themselves and will be in need of positive and hopeful models for their own later years.’ Society has changed dramatically – in 1911, six out of 10 people died before they were 60; now only one in 10 die before 60 – as the quote highlights the way we describe and perceive older people and ageing must also change with the times. As well as taking into account pensions, health and social care costs, it’s time we all recognised the contributions that older people make. Older people are estimated to contribute a total of £175.9bn to the economy, this includes delivering social care worth £34bn and volunteering worth at least £10bn, compared to welfare costs of £136.3bn. But it’s also important that we look at more than their monetary contributions; the contributions they make that cannot be quantified; most notably, the skills, care, advice and experience they provide.