Last Updated on August 29, 2023 by Karl Thompson
Populations across Europe are getting older which can create social problems related to higher levels of poor health among older people and a greater financial and caring ‘burden’ on younger generations.
But careful social planning can help to overcome these challenges.
What are the consequences of an ageing population?
This is a summary of a recent Radio 4 Analysis podcast – Three Score Years and Twenty on Ageing Britain. It’s of clear relevance to the demography topic within the 7191 families and households module….
Here are some of the main points.
In 1850,half the population in England were dead before they reached 46. Now half the population in England are alive at 85; and 8 million people currently alive in the UK will make it to 100 years or more. And if we extrapolate that to Europe, we can say 127 million Europeans are going to live to 100.
Hans Rosling points out that: We reached the turning point five years ago when the number of children stopped growing in the world. We have 2 billion children. They will not increase. The increase of the world population from now on will be a fill up of adults.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt: The two biggest issues that we face as an ageing society are the sustainability of the NHS and the sustainability of the pension system; and within the NHS, I include the social care system as part of that.
The basic problem we have in Northern European countries is the generational tension between individualism and communal responsibility – Across the generations within a typical family we have become more individualistic and less collective/ communal:
People in their 80s (who grew up in the 1960s) are generally very individualistic – they have retired into property wealth and are unwilling to relinquish the independence this gives them. They have also socialised their children into being more independent: most people today in their 50s (the children of those who are in their 80s) have bought into this – The family norm is one of the typical 50 year old living an independent life with family, miles away from their own parents.
Grandparents today of course help out with childcare occasionally and pay regular visits, but they are generally not taking a day to day role in childcare, and finances are kept separate. This arrangement is mutual – People in their 80s don’t want to be burdens on their children, they want them to have the freedom to live their own lives – to be able to work and raise their children without having to care for them in their old age. (So I suppose you might call the 2000s the era of the individualised family).
(This is very different to what it used to be like in the UK, and what it is still like in many other parts of the world where grandparents live close by and are an integral part of family life, taking an active role in raising their grandchildren on a day to day basis. Various interviewees from less developed countries testify to this, and to the advantages of it.)
Within this context of increasing ‘familial-individualism‘ a number of problems of the ageing population are discussed:
Increased family individualism
One of the main problems which this increasing ‘familial-individualism’ creates for people in their 80s is one of increasing isolation and loneliness as their friends and neighbours move away or die.
One proposed solution is for older people to be prepared to move into communal supported housing where there are shared leisure facilities, like many people do in Florida. However, people are quite set in their ways in the UK and so this is unlikely. A second solution, which some immigrants are choosing is to return to thier country of origin where there are more collectivist values, trading in a relatively wealthy life in the UK for less money and more community abroad.
Healthy Life Expectancy
A second problem is that healthy life expectancy is not keeping pace with life-expectancy, and there are increasing numbers of people in their 80s who spend several years with chronic physical conditions such as arthritis, and also dementia – which require intensive social care.
As with the first point above, this is more of a social problem when children do not see it as their duty to care for their elderly parents – It is extremely expensive to provide round the clock care for chronic conditions for several years, and this puts a strain on the NHS. Basically, the welfare state cannot cope with both pensions and chronic care.
One potential solution to the above is mentioned by Sally Greengross: the Germans in some cases now export older people to Eastern European countries because they can’t afford – or they say they can’t – to provide all the services they need in Germany itself. Could this be the future of chronic elderly care in the UK – Exporting dementia patients to poorer countries?
However, the idea of care-homes themselves are not dismissed when it comes to end of life care – the consensus seems to be that the quality of care in UK elderly care homes is generally very good, and better than your typically family could provide (despite all the not so useful scare programmes in the media).
No money left for the young
A third problem is for those in their 50s – with their parents still alive and ‘sucking money out of the welfare state’ there is less left for everything else – and this has been passed down to the youngest generation.
As a result people in their 50s now face the prospect of their own children living at home for much longer and having to help them with tuition fees and mortgage financing, meaning that their own plans for retirement in their late-50s/ early 60s are looking less likely – In other words, the next two generations are bearing a disproportionate cost of the current ageing population.
Worryingly, there is relatively little being done about this in government circles – Yes, the state pension age has been raised, and measures have been taken to get people to bolster their own private pensions, but this might be too little to late, and it looks like little else is likely to be done – The issue of the ageing population and the cost of welfare for the elderly is not a vote-winner after all.
The programme concludes by pointing out that pensions and care homes are only part of the debate. What will also be needed to tackle the problems of the ageing population is a more age-integrated society, a possible renegotiation at the level of the family so that grandparents are more integrated on a day to day basis in family life (trading of child care for a level of elderly care) and also social level changes – to make work places and public places more accessible for the elderly who might be less physically able than those younger than them.
Here’s the full transcript of the show –analysis-ageing
The Future of an Ageing Population (Government Report)
Underfunded and Overstretched – The Crisis in Care for the Elderly – 2016 Guardian article
The question of why we have an ageing population is explained by the combination of the long term decrease in both the birth rates and death rates dealt with in these two posts: Explaining changes to the birth rate, and Explaining the long term decline of the death rate.
A related topic in the Global Development module is the question of whether ‘overpopulation’ is a problem – an informed view on this topic is that of Hans Rosling’s who argues that ‘overpopulation’ isn’t really a problem at all because of the rapid global decline in birth rates.
This mind map on The consequences of an ageing population offers you an easier summary or the topic compared to this post.
Other Summaries of Thinking Allowed Podcasts
Thinking Allowed really is an excellent resource for A level Sociology – here are two other summaries of recent Thinking Allowed Podcasts…