Age Equality: Opportunities and challenges in an age of austerity 

This post was written by Gerry Zarb, Business Development and Policy Manager, SPECTRUM CIL

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With October 1st designated as the annual International Day of Older Persons this is a good time to reflect on the challenges and opportunities for age equality in Britain.

As we know the population is ageing. In 2012 the number of people in the UK aged 65 and older passed 10 million for the first time. The latest projections are for 5½ million more older people in 20 years time and the number will have nearly doubled to around 19 million by 2050.

Britain is an ageing society but at the same time it remains an essentially ageist society. It would be tempting – but mistaken – to predict that the sheer weight of numbers would be enough to push age equality and the full participation of older people to near the top of the public policy agenda. It is true that the current demographic trends will ensure that ageing increasingly holds the attention of policy makers, institutions and the public. But, the attention this brings will certainly not always be welcome. Far from celebrating the collective experience, wisdom and knowledge that older people could contribute to society the onward march of a greying population is more often seen as a source of anxiety.

Ageism is one element of this anxiety – people simply don’t want to think about the reality of old age. Attempting to develop a mature, realistic public policy debate in the face of this collective denial is a big enough challenge on its own, but some of the anxieties about an ageing population are far less prosaic. Chief amongst these is widespread anxiety about the economic costs of supporting an increasingly ageing population and how these costs can be met from a shrinking population of people who remain economically active.

Clearly, the economic challenge is far from imaginary and does need to be addressed in hard cash terms. But, it can equally be seen as an opportunity to tackle other, equally pressing, problems on the age policy ‘to do’ list. In particular, it offers a golden opportunity to breakdown workplace barriers faced by older people.

Similarly, while politicians have mostly convinced themselves that spreading the costs of supporting an ageing population across the generations will ignite some kind of civil war, it is possible to take a braver and more positive approach to the issue. Rather than simply accepting the ‘can’t pay, won’t pay’ mentality as an iron law of relations between the generations, the funding debate could be transformed into an opportunity for building the kind of consensus around collective and shared responsibilities that characterised the founding of the welfare state. This challenge would undoubtedly be significant, but so would the rewards – not only in terms of building positive relations between the generations but also in terms of reinvigorating public welfare itself.

More immediately, the economic anxiety about an ageing Britain needs to countered head on, as decisions taken now on the issue of costs and resources will fundamentally shape the prospects for inclusion and equality for older people for at least the next generation. One of the key policy challenges will be to transform the debate from one focused exclusively on costs to one that also takes account of spending on older people as a positive form of investment and, alongside the costs of maintaining their exclusion.

The development of rigorous and persuasive policy positions on investing in older people also needs to encompass the broader social and economic benefits that could flow from this, and particularly how this could contribute to tackling other major issues on the public policy agenda such as sustainability, building communities and good relations and restoring civic participation.

The current generation of older people has much to offer to promoting sustainability and conservation since many will have direct experience of previous eras of austerity and much practical knowledge – born out of necessity – to living in more sustainable ways by maximising the use of scarce resources. Apart from the direct practical benefits this could bring, there is also untapped potential for building common cause with younger generations who tend to place a much higher value on sustainability than the throw-away society of their parent’s generation.

There is also untapped potential in terms of older people’s role in rebuilding a sense of community and restoring civic participation. If harnessed to emerging social and technological trends such as digital communications there is significant potential for older people to take a leading role in encouraging change in the ways that communities interact and work together to develop solutions to their individual and collective needs.

These are just a few of the many opportunities for promoting the positive contribution older people could make in a more inclusive ageing society. But, in order to maximise such opportunities there remain many barriers and challenges to overcome.

In order for older people to be fully engaged the right kinds of supportive resources need to be in place – and accessible to all – so that they can maximise their participation and independence. This not only means achieving equitable and efficient reform of care and support, but also successfully challenging barriers to adequate health care, and the ageist values and assumptions that underpin them. It will also be important to ensure that some groups of older people – such as people with dementia – do not get left behind. The values of maximising independence, choice and inclusion – within everyone’s own capacity – must be applied equally to all.

The goal of full inclusion cannot be reached without substantial progress on removing the material barriers faced by many older people – particularly barriers to employment, and poverty.

This will require the commitment and shared action of different national and local government departments and, most important of all, community organisations and older people themselves.

The ultimate goal is in fact fairly unremarkable. It is essentially about older people accessing the freedoms and life opportunities they should expect as British citizens – nothing more and nothing less. However, while it is already a reality for some, for many others this deceptively simple aspiration is still a too much of a distant dream.

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