The new retirement: how an ageing population is transforming Britain

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Part 1 of a 9 part series

Dr David Davies sees more than his fair share of sixtysomethings. His clinic is situated in the west Somerset medieval village of Dunster, which has one of the densest populations of older people anywhere in Britain.

But these days, sexagenarians don’t shuffle in looking sorry for themselves. Instead, he says, they are more likely to appear clad in lycra having cycled to their appointment across Exmoor national park.

“They come to see me for unspecified aches and pains which, because they are so fit and think of themselves as young, they think must be caused by something really serious,” he says. “It generally takes at least three appointments before they can begin to even consider that their bodies might just be ageing – and then their reaction is one of absolute horror.

“People up to their late 60s nowadays really struggle with the fact that the ageing process is starting to affect them. It’s partly that people live so long and partly that we’ve picked up the idea that we can defeat the ageing process more or less entirely, thanks to a combination of medical advances and individual, personal care.”

Like some of its rich-world peers, Britain has entered the age of the aged. And, over the next two months, the Guardian will be exploring what that means in a series of weekly articles. The visit to Dr Davies’ surgery is the beginning of what is intended to be a collaborative reporting project in which we tackle the issues prompted by the sweeping away of a traditional approach to old age by a generation of vigorous retirees.

By 2040, nearly one in seven Britons will be over 75, according to a report by the Resolution foundation thinktank published today, which also reveals that almost a third of people born today can expect to live to 100. In 2014, the average age in the UK exceeded 40 for the first time.

The new retirement: why we are covering this issue

As the baby boomer generation enter retirement, we also reach a dramatic demographic turning point: 2017 will see the ratio of non-workers to workers start to rise for the first time since the early 1980s.

Our vastly improved life expectancy, which is growing by five hours a day, was one of the great triumphs of the last century. It is now, however, the source of the greatest challenges – and opportunities – of this era.

Ahead of launching this project, the Guardian asked readers to share their experiences of ageing, and tell us about their concerns and hopes. It became clear reading the responses that trying to deal with all the facets of this issue in one series was not going to work: so instead this project is being split in two. Later in the year it will return to discussions about old age – but the focus for this first, nine-part series will be retirement.

With your help, we will be considering what retirement looks like for this generation and future generations, and how we might all afford it. What do those in their 60s to mid-70s, who have pensions and properties and perhaps three decades of life still ahead of them think? But also those in their 50s and 60s, whose pensions have been eroded and benefits whittled away, and who might not be on the housing ladder? What if you’re in your 30s and barely able to pay your rent, let alone save for a retirement that may not ever arrive?

Help us understand and analyse the lives, challenges and delights of a period of life that was once referred to as the golden years but is now a more complex picture. Your ideas and comments will help structure and develop this project, and unpack what retirement means for this new generation. If you would like to contribute, you can do so by leaving a comment below or by emailing with your tips, leads and experiences.

In advance of this series Debora Price, the president of the British Society of Gerontology and professor of gerontology at the University of Manchester, where she directs Micra, the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing, highlighted a tendency by the media to lump all older people together.

“We have a tendency to depict people aged 50 to 74 in the press and in public life as rich and successful, even powerful, and it’s really important to know that this is only one of a number of different experiences of old age,” she said.

“But the inequalities are greater in this age group than in any other: living in poverty, with difficulties maintaining and heating houses, suffering from malnutrition, needing help and care and being unable to find it – these are all also common experiences of this age group.”

With that in mind, the Guardian wants to reflect a wide range of experiences of retirement, as well as considering many different responses to it.

In west Somerset, where Dr Davies has his surgery, the average age in the area is 52 (pdf) – compared with 40 for the UK as a whole. More than one in three of the population are of retirement age and there are fewer people in the 25- to 44-year-old age group than anywhere else in the country.

According to the 2011 census, West Somerset council is also the local authority with the highest percentage – 7.4% – of people working aged over 65.

Many of these older workers, however, have goals more radical and far-reaching than their own career path. Four years ago, 71-year-old David Salter and 69-year-old Roger Hall set up the charity Porlock Futures to try to combat the impact of the area’s high concentration of people aged over 65: almost 34% of people in Porlock are over 65 compared with 16.4% in England and Wales.

“David and I are two of the youngest ones here – it’s become an OAP village. We have to encourage young people to move here if we’re going to survive,” said Hall.

A not inconsiderable benefit of a workforce aged over 65 is the wealth of experience: Porlock Futures’ executive committee of six has an average age of 70 and boasts retired executive directors of FTSE 100 companies, multinational managers, and international consultants. Their expertise helped them crowdfund £107,000 from 850 households in the local area.

That money, plus grants, enabled the groups to set up affordable housing projects, startups for younger people, and Porlock Oysters, which they hope will sell 1.8m of the shellfish in the UK by 2022 and make a vital and fundamental difference to the demographic of the area.

In fact, it is hard to find an active, older person in west Somerset who is not in either paid employment or involved in intense volunteering. Most volunteer in more than one business.

Barbara Middleton, 70, intended to indulge herself when she retired. “I thought I’d play my horn in the local brass band and generally kick back,” she said. Instead, the former deputy headteacher has become a trustee and manager of Accessible Transport West Somerset, a community service offering wheelchair-friendly and accessible transport for local residents.

“The reality of ageing and my retirement has been very different to what I thought it would be,” she said. “When retirement came, it made me feel old not to be doing something constructive and active. And people in the community who are even older than myself, or younger but more vulnerable, need people like me to do things for them.

“I couldn’t do the things I do now without having had years as a busy, multi-tasking professional with heavy responsibilities,” she said. “I’m reinvesting the skills accrued over a lifetime in my community. It’s not an easy ride to be doing so much at my age: it’s quite the reverse. But I have never had such a good time.”

By quietly examining their community, then getting down to work, the older population of west Somerset has discovered something that governments, companies and legislators are still struggling to comprehend: that demographic change of this scale requires a long-term perspective.

The new Resolution report delves into the huge opportunities an ageing population brings – but also the challenges. According to the report, the tax burden associated with an ageing society and higher dependency ratio – the ratio of non-workers to workers – will rise to £15bn a year by 2060. That is equivalent to a 4p income tax rise for the working age population.

How will Britain cope? Further increases in the state pension age, as the government is currently considering, will not be enough. “A successful pursuit of full employment could maintain the ‘effective’ dependency ratio for many decades to come,” the report’s authors write. “The main beneficiaries of this will be disabled and older workers who are struggling to return to the labour market.”

In the absence of long-term responses, however, ageing baby boomers are seizing the reins for the second time. When they were teenagers, this generation transformed the morals and structure of the 1960s with their mantra of “I want”. Their new mantra is “I need” and, thanks to both low birth rates and high life expectancies, their voice is once again the dominant one.

If you would like to add your voice to this reporting project, I would love to hear from you – whether you are currently retired, considering retirement, or working out whether it will ever be a possibility. My next report, published on Monday 23 January, will be all about money. I’d love to hear your experiences, or who you think I should be talking to. 

This article was written by Amelia Hill from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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