We must act now and equip ourselves for an ageing society

14th Mar 2013

Government and society as a whole are ‘woefully unprepared’ for demographic change. We need a bolder, broader vision, says Ilona Haslewood.

Although we’re likely to live longer, a new report finds we’re ‘woefully unprepared’ for the changes this demographic change brings. Ilona Haslewood argues that we need a bolder, broader vision.

The most important achievement of the report by the House of Lords Select Committee on Public Service and Demographic Change is that it gives us all a much-needed wake-up call.

It finds that Government and our society as a whole are ‘woefully unprepared’ for the impending demographic change.

Significantly, it looks at implications across a number of areas – working lives, pensions, housing, health and social care – that will determine whether we will have the means and services to help us live our longer lives well. It powerfully argues that the system is not coping now, let alone in the next ten years.

A vision is needed, and it needs to be even broader than the one suggested by the Committee. Demographic change was a key driver in re-writing the social contract settled upon in the aftermath of the Second World War, resulting in a system of public services catering for shorter life spans and a higher proportion of the population in work.

But as Julia Unwin has argued other drivers are at play too, including a weak economy and fiscal downturn, a hollowed-out employment market and an overheated and unstable housing market. This is exacerbated by public attitudes blaming and demeaning poor people, which extends to older people too.

The Committee’s findings begin to consider the new social contract between and within generations, and between women and men.

I very much welcome bringing in the notion of fairness to highlight the potential for growing inequalities in health, wealth and the very different chances of a comfortable old age.

However, we must be realistic about the limited potential of unlocking the housing wealth of people who are older now to solve this issue. Better equity release products can, at best, contribute to meet costs in the interim, and are not for everyone, but depend on house prices staying high. The negative impact of an overpriced and volatile housing market on the economy and on the livelihood of people on low incomes is well known and is not a desired long-term solution.

The Committee makes it clear that action must begin before the next election. Viewed as part of the re-writing of the wider social contract encompassing all ages, we have argued that it has already begun, in a muddle of separate measures, chiefly aimed at the working-age population. Thinking of the future generations of older people, this should ring alarm bells.

Without a broad and bold vision of the future economy and employment markets, infrastructure and housing, we will only ever chip away at the edges. The Committee made a good start, but we must go further and without delay.

JRF contributed evidence to the Committee’s work, and we will continue to explore how we can positively adjust to an ageing society, sharing our findings for a wider debate.

We also hope our anti-poverty strategies will feed into a broader vision of a new social contract fit for a fairer, older society.