An intergenerational approach is only way to prepare for an ageing population

2nd May 2013

Ageing is not just about older people. A cross-generational approach is a much more helpful way of looking at the implications, says Claire Turner.

When most people think ‘ageing’ they think older people. But in order to explore the implications of an ageing society a cross-generational approach is much more helpful, says Claire Turner.

The public and policy debate about readiness for ageing currently focuses on the young and old, but this is at best distracting and at worst divisive. We need to focus on the implications across generations to have an honest, evidence-based dialogue about ageing and fairness, and need to include all generations in that.

Last week I sat on the panel of a debate on public services and demographic change. The debate came on the back of the House of Lords Select Committee Ready for Ageing report. The questions were wide ranging but time and time again the discussion came back to intergenerational issues, in particular intergenerational fairness between young and old. This evening marks the first event of the Guardian Ageing Population Partnership, which will bring together different professionals to answer the question: how can we best respond to the opportunities and challenges of an ageing population? I’m sure the same intergenerational issues will be writ large there too.

This is an important facet of the understanding how we – individuals, communities and the state - prepare for an ageing society. However, I’m not sure how helpful this particular type of ‘intergenerational’ focus is to the debate. At its most basic level, if we define intergenerational as young and old we miss out a large part of the working age population when the opportunities and challenges of living longer affect us all. Also, simply focusing on two generations - young and old - has the potential to pitch one generation against another. The young and old dynamic can make generational issues feel niche (conjuring up images of primary school aged children visiting care homes) when the reality is that the issue of fairness across and connections between generations and over time should be at the core of public policy.

I would argue that a cross-generational approach to ageing would be a much more helpful way to think about the consequences of living longer. While the intergenerational debate has tended to highlight the conflicts between young and old, everyday lives do not necessarily reflect this. Different generations live together, sharing neighbourhoods and workplaces, and this will become more common as people live and work for longer.

ONS projections estimate that babies born in 2011 can expect to live for nearly 100 years (average 94 years for males and 97 years for females). We are already at a time where we see five-generation families and this is surely set to continue given increased life expectancies. These real and personal connections could help shift the debate on ageing to a place which is meaningful to all of us.