Baroness Greengross 961X460

Older and wiser

25 June 2014

Baroness Greengross on the world of ageing populations...

Baroness Sally Greengross, OBE, was Director General of Age UK (formerly Age Concern) between 1987 and 2000, and has done a great deal to support ageing and equality in our society. In her role as President and Chief Executive of the International Longevity Centre UK, she spoke to Pádraig Floyd about the challenges facing both the UK and the wider world with ageing populations.

PF: How do you feel the Government has responded to the issues of longevity?

BG: I’m pleased about auto-enrolment as it will increase the number of people who save into a pension pot. But there are huge challenges because we know that a lot of them will have to contribute far more than the rules require. If they don’t raise contributions enough, many people will be largely reliant on the state pension to fund their retirement. That’s not going to be a good retirement in many ways, and employers who are a trusted source of support and advice can make or break this, by helping to keep opt-out rates low and keep pension contributions high. But many firms, especially small ones who haven’t administered schemes before, are not necessarily going to be on-board from day one. A further consideration is how those individuals are going to behave when they retire; something has to be done to ensure people make the right choices about decumulation.

PF: What more needs to be done in the UK to address its impact?

BG: The population structure is very important. We have to get more people to work beyond 65 otherwise our economic performance may stagnate. Some European countries, such as Germany, are going the other way, but we need to extend working lives. Our demographic challenges are not as bad as Japan or Germany, but there are many more old people who continue to increase in number, because medical and social care are getting better. Although the Care and Support Bill is very good, it isn’t going to deal with all of the challenges.

We need a new, integrated system, which looks at housing issues as well as health and social care. If we get housing right, we could keep more people at home and release more housing for younger people who desperately need it. Our housing is old and in many cases, damp, cold and unsuitable and so the elderly end up staying in hospital even though they don’t need to be.

PF: What will be the impact of more people staying on later at work when we already have high levels of youth unemployment?

BG: That assumes if older people stay on in work, younger people can’t get a job. The labour market expands as is needed, and research shows increased employment amongst older people would be a good thing. Older people help to boost the national income. Even if they’re frail, they’re part of the economy because they’re employing people to look after them. We need more labour in the economy and older people can be a contributory factor, rather than a drain. There’s a lot of stigma attached to old age, but we’ve already seen massive change in this country in terms of other inequalities and prejudices, so we can expect age to be treated the same way. 

The older generation often use their economic power or do without in order to make life better for the younger generation.

PF: Do you think we may see increased radicalisation of different groups within society because they will be fighting for their rights?

BG: No. Some older people have young relatives – usually children or grandchildren – who aren’t going to vote to deny them rights and take the benefits all for themselves. The older generation often use their economic power or do without in order to make life better for the younger generation.

PF: Is there greater pressure on politicians to provide the kind of integrated social services that you’ve talked about, from healthcare right through to housing?

BG: That’s intergenerational, as more housing for older people means more housing is available for younger people, just by sharing it out. I don’t see any great threat of intergenerational conflict. I think people are more sensible and much nicer than we like to think.

PF: What more should industry and Government do to promote togetherness?

BG: We need a joined-up approach. The different parts of society have got to understand the issues are now too big for one sector to deal with, so we need a collective approach – meeting the demands of an ageing society presents a huge challenge. We should be celebrating the fact that we can live longer, whilst tackling those huge challenges like dementia. It was admirable that the Prime Minister got the G8 focusing on dementia at the recent summit. Now we need to make sure those promises are delivered. The International Longevity Centre (ILC) is hoping to lead on how we can have a sustainable, ageing society across the globe. 

PF: How well is the UK placed to manage all of this?

BG: As far as health is concerned, we’re good and in terms of longevity, there are signs that people are beginning to take it seriously and realise it is to be celebrated. We all want to live longer providing we have decent quality of life. But we must adapt to this enormous change. People don’t quite realise what changes need to be made, even to the state pension age. We’re doing well because we’re raising the pension age in line with life expectancy. Some countries are doing the reverse and that is a very short-sighted approach.

PF: How important is it that Government grasp the nettle of longevity and all its influences? 

BG: We can’t get longevity wrong as we don’t want those who are living longer to be shut out of society. This isn’t just the Government’s responsibility. It is up to all of us to work together to respond to these challenges and bring young and old together so that young people can identify with them more. With the technology we have access to today, it should be quite easy to achieve this. Where we need to invest our energy is in reversing these stereotypes.



All imaged credited to Anthony Upton.