Talkin ‘Bout My Generation? You Should Be

Our ageing society is a massive problem that democratic governments find difficult to tackle. Like global warming, the impacts of demographic change take place over timescales far greater than a five-year electoral cycle.

People tried to put them down but the baby boomer generation took over the world. Through music, fashion, sex and consumerism they gave two fingers to a stuffy establishment and celebrated the virtue of youth. ‘Hope I die before I get old’ sang The Who in 1965.

Exactly how old was carefully brushed under the carpet, of course, and the post-war generation is still going strong. The wealthiest section of the UK population bought property when it was cheap, saw inflation erode their mortgage debts and now enjoy generous pension entitlements.

Depending on who you ask, this group – now the older generation – is a powerful voting force, a business opportunity or a demographic time bomb.

I was at a care homes and retirement housing conference earlier this month where the numbers made us sit up and take notice. According to Knight Frank, the over 50s hold two thirds of all housing wealth – that’s £2.5 trillion if you’re counting. But while the proportion of the population who are over-70 is set to rise from 12% of the population today to 19% in 20 years’ time, our policies and infrastructure simply aren’t ready for them. Just 3% of new-build housing is designated ‘elderly’ or ‘sheltered’ housing. Local authority funded care is struggling with cuts. And AgeUK estimates that more than a million older people regularly go a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or relative.

The Government today unveiled plans to allow local authorities to raise council tax bills by an extra 6% over the next two years in an attempt to urgently plug the social care funding gap. But it has acknowledged the short-term nature of the solution and the need for a longer-term strategy.

So why aren’t we planning properly for the shape of tomorrow’s society, particularly since most of us quietly favour Robbie Williams over Roger Daltrey and hope we’re old before we die?

Denial may be part of it. In a world where wrinkles can be airbrushed, chins can be tucked and we’re all encouraged to join the cult of the gym (check out this guy), there’s a sense that we can put off the inevitable. A touch of gerascophobia may be in play. We may aspire to go on into our 80s, particularly given the alternative, but knowing that one in six people of that age have dementia, according to the Alzheimers Society, certainly gives pause for thought.

This collective blindness presents a fascinating opportunity.

Our ageing society is a massive problem that democratic governments find difficult to tackle. Like global warming, the impacts of demographic change take place over timescales far greater than a five-year electoral cycle. But if businesses and third sector organisations can grasp this nettle in the right way they can create commercial advantage from new insights and ideas.

Retirement housebuilder, McCarthy and Stone, has done excellent work linking the housing crisis for first-time buyers to the need to help older homeowners to downsize. In the pension space, Retirement Advantage is looking at how the relationship between personal identity and property ownership affects income generation in old age. But the impact of the ageing population goes way beyond property and pensions.

Here are three areas worthy of investigation where strong thought leadership work could set a brave brand apart:

  • Technology: Ofcom is investigating the rising cost of landlines, for fear that older people are being ripped off. Is it a responsibility, an opportunity or an imposition for technology brands to bring the older generation with them as they develop new products and ideas?
  • Society: Housebuilders and policymakers seem to think that older people want to live in specialist, segregated communities. Should more effort be made to integrate generations and understand the impact of segregation on well-being, especially levels of loneliness?
  • Culture: Attitudes towards old age differ across ethnicities and regions. Older generations are revered in China and South Korea, while Japan has introduced a range of measures to improve the lives of its ageing demographic. What happens elsewhere and what lessons can the UK learn?

The range of challenges created by an ageing demographic are manifold. And, despite Mick Jagger’s best attempts, we can’t rely on repopulation to solve our problems. Challenge and opportunity go hand in hand.

Jon Bennett
Managing Director

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