An ageing population and a declining birth rate have led to mounting pressure on support services to help our older generations.
Experts have voiced their concern over a lack of investment into the prevention of health issues associated with age, including dementia and coronary heart disease.
Dr Alan Walker, a Professor of Social Policy and Social Gerontology at the University of Sheffield, said: “We let people’s bodies and minds wear out on the basis of previous assumptions that we could just get rid of them.”
What are the concerns of ageing populations and what are the consequences?
As countries become more prosperous, the number of children being born declines, narrowing the gap between births and deaths.
This is due to women having children later in life, concentrating on careers, and a decrease in child mortality.
New data from the National Records of Scotland (NRS), for instance, revealed in 2022 there were nearly three deaths for every two births in the country.
Julie Ramsay, the Vital Events Statistician at NRS, said: “Having fewer births than deaths in a population is referred to as ‘negative natural change’ meaning that without external factors such as migration, the population will fall.”
This is nothing new, Western countries have been battling this trend for several decades, with projections from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) suggesting it will carry on. This could mean the UK will see its population consistently decline as it has in countries throughout Europe such as Portugal, Italy, and Poland.
Dr Walker said: “As countries develop, and become more prosperous, the birth rates always decline, and that’s happening globally —it´s not something that suddenly happened.”
As birth rates decline, and people live longer, with life expectancy showing no signs of reaching a plateau, the median age of the population continues to increase. In the UK, this change is projected to bring the median age to 44.5 years by 2050, up from 37.6 in 2000.
As this happens, economists believe social support services, such as pensions, will face further pressures due to having fewer young people filling vacant roles in the labour market and contributing via taxes.
With less support, older people will continue to become even more susceptible to health conditions associated with old age, leading to those who have jobs taking on caring responsibilities.
Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK, said: “Every year many thousands of women and men of working age have to ditch their jobs to care for loved ones, in the absence of a good, reliable, and affordable care service being available.”
Furthermore, this problem characteristically worsens when comparing deprived areas to more affluent ones. In Sheffield, the disparity in life expectancy can differ by 10 years, for both men and women, depending on where they live.
Could immigration rejuvenate the labour market?
On average, those immigrating to the UK tend to be aged between 18 and 29-years-old. For this reason, the upscaling of immigration has long been suggested as a way of rejuvenating the labour market.
Immigration is already an important factor in the maintenance of population growth. ONS data projects around 2.2 million arrivals over the next 10 years alone.
However, political disagreements surrounding policies relating to looser immigration policies make this an unreliable factor to consider.
Investing in old age as an alternative
Various possible solutions have been put forward by experts on how to solve the problems of an ageing population.
One option, which has been adopted by countries such as Belgium, is encouraging families to have children earlier in their lives, increasing the likelihood that they would continue to expand the size of their family.
This, however, seems to have failed to have been taken up.
Dr Walker explained: “There’s no alternative on the childbirth front, every attempt to try to increase birth rates has largely failed and or hasn’t been in sufficient numbers to make any significant difference.”
Instead, he suggests that the trend of an ageing population should be accepted and more focus should be put into making sure that people are able to remain productive as life expectancy continues to increase.
“There’s a change in the labour market, because an ageing society means an ageing workforce, and, therefore future productivity depends to a huge extent on making sure that, as workers age, they remain productive,” said Dr Walker.
“What matters is how far our society invests in its workforce and how far it invests in machinery to increase productivity.”
Experts across the country have continued to call for ‘healthy life expectancy’ to be adopted as a driving mentality for this change in the labour market. This refers to the fact that, despite people living longer, the amount of time they are healthy for does not necessarily improve, even worsening depending on location.
Dr Walker said: “There’s almost an acceptance by policymakers that because people are old then they’re going to get conditions, such as dementia and coronary heart disease, so they don’t do anything to prevent them.
“On the basis of science, all of them are preventable through very basic things like diets, and exercise.”