With the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham dominating much of the media coverage over the last week, Hanover took the opportunity to engage with the politicians, local councillors, party members, charity representatives and media who had gathered there by hosting a fringe event that focused on the idea of ’Growing Old Gracefully’. This stood apart from many other events which solely focused on housing.
Clare Tickell was joined on a panel consisting of Paul Johnson (Director of the influential Institute of Fiscal Studies), Bel Mooney (journalist and the Daily Mail Agony Aunt|) and Councillor Peter Golds (Leader of Tower Hamlets Conservatives).
The panel traded eye-watering facts that an ageing society is now well and truly upon us and that the size of that population is set to grow: by 2040, nearly one in four people in the UK will be aged 65 or over, and there will be a 100% increase in the over 85s by 2035.
Alongside society living and working longer, there will be increasing health needs. While some 6 million of those aged 60+ currently live with one long-term health condition, we will see a dramatic increase in those who wwill suffer from two or three conditions. All of these pressures require money for care, and Paul Johnson estimated that by 2030, half of all government expenditure would need to be spent on pensions and health to help support the growing older population.
We are also seeing stark intergenerational differences, although the panel caveated that there were also big differences within a generation as between generations. In short, we are seeing better off 'pensioners' (certainly compared with the 1980s) and ironically a much poorer younger generation. So at the age of 30, those born in the early 1980s have only half the wealth of those born a decade earlier at the same age, and this coupled with homeownership halving in younger age groups. Paul Johnson summarised it as the older generation being lucky at the expense of the younger generation - the baby boomers have seen an increase in the value of their homes and have good occupational pension schemes to give them financial security. He went on to suggest that in one sense we’re back to Victorian times. His advice for those born in the 1980s (if you want a comfortable retirement, to own a big house and have that financial security to pay for a few cruises) is to make sure you were born to wealthy parents!
Clare Tickell outlined the many policy challenges facing older people and the need for a joined up national strategy. She emphasised the importance of older people's housing in promoting independent living and preventing people being forced into care. Good housing for older people also saves money for the hard pressed NHS. But whilst those working in Hanover know this to be true, making the case for the value of the right housing is not as easy as it sounds without a strong empirical evidence base to influence the hard-nosed commissioner of a local health service, let alone Treasury officials in Whitehall.
Bel Mooney - a self-confessed baby boomer who aims to keep working well into her eighties - shared some of the difficulties faced by older people that she sees in her weekly postbag of letters. These graphic stories of hardship and pain are at odds with the image in the media of the better-off pensioners never having it had so good. She emphasised that marital breakdown in older life was creating severe consequences for care and housing. Added to this, loneliness was a becoming a major societal problem with over half of those 75+ living alone, something which affects mental and physical health. She pressed for a different way of regarding older people and also to increase volunteering of younger people to assist the older generation.
Peter Gold - as local councillor in the East End of London - has to deal with problems for older people in his constituency surgery and reminded the audience that not all older people were in good financial shape, with a number just living above the poverty line. Earlier this year he had visited an older lady living in one room in a large house with a one-bar electric fire but no heating elsewhere. Despite the merits of downsizing for some older people it‘s not quite so easy and is hampered by building societies and the rigid tax system. He advocated more mixed tenure schemes and younger people living alongside older people. The panel then discussed ways of trying to improve equity release to help increase housing supply through downsizing.
Despite some differing views, the panel agreed with the need to build resilience of older people supported by good housing and care. It would need a proper, coherent and joined up strategy to cope with an ageing society which cuts across the fiefdoms of government departments. But Paul Johnson, whose BBC Radio 4 Analysis programme on this theme was broadcast last week, felt he needed to give again the sober reminder to the audience of the costs of the ageing society in terms of the options government need to think about, namely do we keep the level of state expenditure at present, have yet more austerity, or have a bigger state expenditure. All difficult political choices.