The politics of ageing: where will we be in 2024?

15th Feb 2012

Our rapidly ageing society will be a big demographic shift that radically alters our politics by 2024, says Gordon Hector.

Paul Goodman's tongue-in-cheek piece aiming to show how Labour could win every election from now until 2024 made me think. One of its arguments was that big demographic changes – immigration, votes in Scotland and voter distribution - would count against the Conservatives.

I'm sympathetic to this. But I also think that by 2024 we're going to be undergoing one much bigger demographic shift that will radically change our politics: our rapidly ageing society. By 2024, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) says we'll have over 12.5 million over-65s.

Ageing won't be even across the UK, though. This is where it gets interesting for plotting our political future. Have a look at this image:

It shows the projected median age by local authority in 2033. The darker the purple, the older the age. It's clearly uneven, and if you look at the full graphic, it plays the trend from 1992 to 2033.

When you do that, it looks like the north and west hits a higher median age than the south and east. You'd want to look at better data* before making too many assertions, but it looks like the overall trend is for increasing concentrations of older voters in areas of long-term economic stagnation.

This complicates the politics of ageing.

At the moment, political parties feel they can afford to woo older voters with a crude formula: give them stuff, and they will vote for you. It's no coincidence pensioners saw a sustained reduction in poverty rates over the past 15 years, or can achieve a socially acceptable standard of living if they claim all their benefits. They're one of very few groups that all parties are happy talking about as straightforward recipients of state cash.

This is understandable. But by 2024, we'll have many more older people. And they might be living in areas that aren’t growing. So at some point between now and 2024, this way of doing politics will surely become unsustainable, and it will change.

For the party that works out how – and squares the circle of winning the votes of older people while avoiding bankruptcy - the electoral prize is huge.

*And you'd also want to do some serious modelling to work out exactly what that means – in particular, understanding cause and effect. It might be that an older place has slower growth due to smaller working-age wealth-creating base, or low-growth places look like they’ve aged because their young people leave for jobs elsewhere. Or incoming migrants might decrease median age in areas that are growing. You would need to explore how voting intentions, growth and ageing all interact before being really confident about all this.