Is the ‘burden of ageing’ a real problem now or in the future or has it been exaggerated

A topic causing much debate in today’s social and political forum is that of the ageing or greying of the population. Recent statistics have revealed that by 2031, 26% of the population is predicted to be aged over 65. 1 Combined with the decrease in birth rates with only 11. 5% of the population aged under 10 2 the welfare state could be facing problems. The UK is not alone in this regard, China, Germany and Italy are facing a more sever situation in contrast. There are currently more people in retirement than those in employment, which cause problems in relation to the state pension.

Due to medical advances the number of people living longer has vastly increased however health experts claim that these people are more likely to contract long term illness that require constant care. The NHS will invariably provide this care and the ability of the welfare state to cope with this cost is questionable. The problems that incur from an ageing population range the burden on the NHS to oppression and discrimination. It has been reported that 28% of pensioners are living on an income below the poverty line (around i?? 81 a week after tax and housing costs).

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Children born within the post-war baby boom will soon be reaching retirement age and will pose a particular problem for the government in the future if nothing is done now. Young (2002) on the other hand argues that the ageing population does not pose a significant problem. He puts forward that ageing is a natural process undergone by all, instead it is the failure of society to recognise the needs of the elderly that causes problems for the elderly. Campaigners for the elderly have suggested a number of solutions for the supposed problems.

For instance the government could pay for long-term health care costs and the residential costs paid for by the individual. The government must also stress the need to younger generations to plan for their future by investing in private pensions as it has been estimated that around 8 million people in work are not members of occupational or personal pension schemes (www. bbc. co. uk). If the government is able to address these issues now and meet the needs of the elderly a ‘crisis’ is likely to be avoided in the future. Evidence to suggest that the ageing of the population is an imposing threat will be discussed first.

To avoid the ‘pensioners time bomb’ that is set to destabilise the Japanese, French and German economies, the UK government has over the past 20 years allowed the basic state pension to depreciate in value. Those currently employed have therefore been encouraged to take out private and occupational pensions as it is likely that by 2050 the government will be spending less on public pension provision than it is now. 4 The drop in the value of the pension has only served to further the broadening gap between rich and poor pensioners. Currently the basic state pension is worth around i?? 5 a week for a single pensioner and i?? 120 for a couple. This is not much when considering one in six pensioner couples retire on more than i?? 400 per week (Department of Social Security). To lessen the extent of poverty among the elderly the government introduced the means tested Minimum Income Guarantee (MIG). This scheme tops up the state pension to i?? 92. 50 a week for a single pensioner and i?? 140. 55 a week for couples. This is some improvement on the previous situation but the fundamental problem linked to this benefits and other like it is the fact that it is means tested.

Many pensioners are just to embarrassed to claim it because of the stigma attached to means tested benefits so they live on in poverty, the Department of Social Security has estimated that between 34% and 40% of older people eligible for income support do not claim it (Young, 2002). It is therefore no great surprise that many pensioners are oppressed by poverty. This specific inequality that affects older people is not caused so much by the ageing of the population but more by government slackness.

More needs to be done to raise the state pension in line with working salaries instead of inflation so that pensioners are receiving a better income. The government must encourage pensioners on low incomes to collect the benefits available to them to combat inequality and impoverishment. Many Health experts are suggesting that as the population continues to ‘grey’ a further burden will be placed on the NHS to deal with the costs. Compared to around 1935 far more people are living into their 70s’s and beyond. This has mainly been a result of the improvements in living conditions and health care brought about by the post war welfare system.

Combined with more recent technological and medical advancements people of all ages are receiving better health care and living longer. Although this is obviously a beneficial situation there are repercussions to be considered. Older age groups (those aged over75. ) of pensioners are more likely to suffer from long term illness as opposed to the younger elderly who are more often than not, fit and healthy. In a government survey carried out in 1996 it was revealed that 66% of people aged over 75 and over had a long standing illness compared to 35% of people of all ages (Young, 2002).

This particular age group relies more heavily on the services of doctors, nurses and residential care than any other age group. Moon and Gillespie (1995) suggested that the ageing population are a drain on resources as over 65s visit GPs 6 times a year in comparison to 4 times a year for 16 – 44 year olds. The costs of caring for those who suffer from debilitating illnesses is expensive, so much so that government decided to make cuts in local authority and health budgets which, has led to the demise of services like ‘home help’.

This move may only have worsened the situation as it has taken away services that supported the independence of the elderly. Without them pensioners will have to rely more heavily on services like hospitals, nursing and residential homes. In Scotland the government is implementing a scheme recommended by the Royal Commission on Long Term Care, whereby the government pays for the personal care of a patient and the individual is responsible for paying the ‘hotel’ costs (www. barnett-waddingham. co. uk, 2002).

If the UK government were to introduce a similar policy now it might ease the growing pressure on the NHS in the future. The Director General of Age Concern, Gordon Lishman, agrees with fixing the problems now. He argues that a crisis will only occur ‘if we don’t address the issues now and come up with imaginative and flexible ways of looking at long term care . . . (and) a health system. ‘5 Labour has recently announced plans to raise the age of retirement from 65 to 70 in the hope that this will avoid a ‘crisis’ in the future.

The Pensions Policy Institute (PPI) presented the recommendation in September 2002. PPI pointed out that one benefit of extending the retirement age would be at no extra cost state pension payouts could be increased to i?? 110 a week for a single pensioner. Not only would this provide pensioners with a better income but it would also take older pensioners out of the stigmatised means tested benefits, this would seemingly alleviate some of the problems associated with the elderly.

Other Countries are set to raise the age of retirement for example the US government intends to raise their state pension to 67. Is raising the age of retirement the best way to avoid a possible crisis in the future? Currently within society older generations of the work force receive a great deal of discrimination, Young (2002) suggests that this may be due to the reality that this society does not favour the experience of older people and their continued contribution to society is not encouraged.

Ageism is a problem that has long since afflicted the labour market, with figures showing that at least 40% of people who retire early felt as though they were forced to do so against their will. 6 With this kind of attitude widely displayed in the labour market it will certainly cause problems for those older workers trying to find and stay in employment. The government and the EU have recognised that ageism is becoming more widespread ad will prove problematic if the retirement age is extended.

One new piece of policy designed to eliminate this type of oppression is the EU’s directive that outlaws ageism in the workplace, this will come into action in the UK in 2006. Companies have therefore had to prepare themselves for the impending legislation, one such example is The Royal Bank of Scotland. The company ran a campaign over the radio, newspapers and buses advertising that the it was interested in recruiting people aged over 35. If attitudes towards the elderly are not altered then there could be rise unemployment figures in the future.

This is just some of the evidence that suggest that the ageing of the population could be problematic but to many experts the ‘crisis’ predicted by the government has been grossly exaggerated. Hills (1993) for instance argues that an increase in welfare spending at a rate of 0. 32% a year for the next half century would be adequate to cover the costs of an ageing society. Shaw (2002) pointed out that contemporary ageing is normally a result of a specific phenomenon i. e. the post war baby boom and the succeeding ‘baby bust’ , whose influence on the population will work its way out before the middle of the century.

These arguments suggest that the ageing of the population will not prove to a problem in the future. Another point raised by Shaw (2002) is that it is convenient for the government to blame the ageing population for there being more in retirement than employment. The decrease in birth rates is a major contributor to the situation but it would seem contradictory for the government to be worried about this when such great emphasis has been placed upon combating high birth rates in the developing world.

As a result the government and population policy advisors tend to highlight the ageing of society rather than the steep decrease in birth rates. It can be assumed from this then that the government has used the ‘burden of ageing’ as an excuse to move away universal public provision or the welfare state. In terms of the burden placed on the NHS by the ageing population it is not necessarily that clear cut. The break down in family structures and communities that once supported the elderly has played a part in the problem.

Statistics show that about a third of people aged over 65 live alone (young, 2002) and that older people are more likely to live in rural areas7 where it is harder to form communities. This means that there is no one to assist in the care of these elderly people and they become more isolated and oppressed. It is therefore not a case of demographics, which is causing a problem but instead a break down in society. Shaw (2002) states that it is not the ageing trend of the UK population that is problematic but the obsession with it is.

He claims that the stress that the government places on the subject distracts from the real roots of modern societies problems. This argument is the most feasible as evidence to suggest that the ageing population is a burden on the welfare seems to be result of spin created by the government. The most pressing issue here is not an ageing population but what the core roots of the problem are, oppression, inequality and impoverishment. If society is willing to change it’s attitudes on the elderly then in the future they will be treated with respect rather than a burden.