First published: Guardian.co.uk, 04/02/2009
Britain must urgently take steps to prepare for the seismic impact of a rapidly ageing population
The Spanish film-maker Luis Buñuel reportedly once quipped that age is not important unless you’re a cheese. Quite right, and who would not see longer and healthier life expectancy as something to celebrate? But beyond this, a darker side to the issue of a rapidly ageing population also looms.
For the first time, Britain’s over-65s outnumber people aged under 16. By 2035, these two age groups will have grown by 4 million (or nearly 50%), and 500,000, respectively. The working age group in between will be a little smaller. These developments capture the economic essence of ageing populations, namely the sharp rise in economic dependency of older citizens on those of working age. For the UK, this means that while there are now four people of working age supporting each pensioner, by 2035 it will be just two and a half, and by 2050 only two. The financial and economic crisis is accentuating the urgency of addressing these demographic trends, not least because several hundred million baby boomers (17 million in the UK, 78 million in the US) played a critical part in the economic boom of the last 20 years – and are now spearheading the march towards an ageing society.
The UK, note, is one of the better-positioned advanced nations when it comes to rapid ageing. Japan, Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia and all of eastern Europe are in a far worse situation. Even China is ageing more rapidly than …more