Those of us working in policy are often guilty of using negative language of ‘challenges’ when we talk about ageing societies. At their annual conference which I attended last Thursday, the International Longevity Centre (ILC) asked us to think instead about the economic opportunities of an ageing society.
Research released by ILC last week suggests that if we could support those aged 75 and over to match the spending of 65 to 74-year-olds, we could add 8% a year to GDP by 2040. This idea of ‘maximising the longevity economy’ provided the framing for a day of presentations and panel discussions on a huge variety of topics.
Here are some of the key themes that stood out for me from the day:
1. The longevity economy may be a given, but it’s up to us to shape it
It is often said that ‘demography is destiny’, but as Harvard Professor of Economics and Demography David Bloom noted in his remarks, the societal impacts of demographic change are not set in stone.
The most important and interesting questions are whether the new longevity economy will be more or less equal than our current one and whether it works for the poorest and those with greatest need. This will depend on the choices that we make.
2. The longevity economy is not just about older people as workers or consumers
Several speakers highlighted the importance of not getting too lost in narratives of older people’s spending power.
Helena Herklots the Older People’s Commissioner for Wales righty reminded us that we equally need to support and recognise the contributions of older people as volunteers and carers – indeed, research by David Bloom suggests that older people contribute more outside of the market, rather than within, through these activities.
A thriving economy driven by older households will only be possible if we also fix some of the basics like our social care system. And while older people could dominate consumer spending in the future, pensioner poverty is also predicted to increase over the coming years.
3. The local perspective on the longevity economy is key
Although some sessions were framed around the benefits of the longevity economy for ‘UK Plc’, we were also reminded about the importance of local economies.
Paul McGarry, Head of the Greater Manchester Ageing Hub, noted that cities have been a locus of real innovation, exploring what age friendly communities of the future could look like.
Paul observed that local councils have historically been pretty silo-ed between the part that deals with economic growth and job creation and the part that deals with the provision of key public services. A requirement of a successful future longevity economy will be getting these different parts of local government to be much better joined up.
4. The longevity economy needs the right physical environments and design
Brooklyn-based writer and ageism campaigner Ashton Applewhite argued there is a lot to be learnt from disability movements about ableism and the way we frame problems. In the case of someone trying to get around in a wheelchair, the problem is not their wheelchair but the existence of stairs.
Similarly in the ageing field, we need to look at how our shared environments enable or disable older people in the UK.
This is important at every level, from the way we design our cities, to our homes right down to the features in our kitchens. Professor of Social Gerontology Sheila Peace gave the example of dementia friendly kitchens which feature glass fronted cupboards to make finding things easier as a really practical application of this.
Older people will need to be at the centre of the design process in the longevity economy. “Business as usual” will no longer work, we must be willing to test and innovate.
Thanks to our colleagues at ILC for a stimulating day of discussions. To find out more, see the presentations available for download on their conference page: https://ilcuk.org.uk/event-the-future-of-ageing/