Want to enjoy a happier life? Just keep working!
Sarah Harper has a personal take on early retirement. “My father stopped work at 54,” says Professor Harper, founder of the Institute for Population Ageing at Oxford University. “His employers, IBM, offered him early retirement. He was really excited at the prospect.”
But the voluntary work and further education that Robert Harper had lined up for his later years dwindled and eventually disappeared and he was forced to become increasingly self-reliant in trying to find ways to pass the time.
“He eventually found that challenging and often said he missed the stimulus of colleagues and work.”
Robert Harper died in 2015 after living for more than 30 years on an IBM pension, longer than his employment with the company. It is a skewed lifestyle that is becoming all too common, says Harper, whose Foresight committee was responsible for the 2016 report Future of an Ageing Population which said Britain’s ageing population should be encouraged to lead longer working lives.
Life expectancy in Britain has risen steadily for decades as improved sanitation and antibiotics have vanquished most infectious diseases. Similarly, chronic ailments such as heart disease and cancer have been slowly succumbing to medical interventions. As a result the average lifespan in Britain has risen inexorably – from just under 50 in 1900 to over 75 in 2000 – and that figure, with the occasional stutter, has continued to rise.
In addition, family sizes are smaller so that numbers of older people have increased proportionally within the population. That has consequences for the makeup of our workforce. In coming years, more of our population will be people over 50. They will have to maintain productivity and stoke the fires of industry. Yet these are also the people being encouraged to retire early.
“We have said to young people: stay in education until your mid-20s, retire in your mid-50s and live to your 90s,” says Harper. So we have people working for only 25 years to contribute to a 90-year lifespan. That is not the way society should be working.”
Waves of demographic change are sweeping the nation, she insists. “If you have half your population aged over 50, you are in a very different situation than you were in the middle of the last century when we had half of our population under 30. We have got to come to terms with this.”
From this perspective, it is clear the problems Britain faces as its population ages are not ones merely affect pensions or the quality of healthcare. They involve fundamental structural changes to education, employment, housing, transport and medical services.
Consider housing. By 2037 it is estimated there will be 1.42 million more households headed by someone aged 85 or over. That will be an increase of 161% over 25 years. Demand for housing for older people is therefore set to rise steeply.
Adapting existing homes to meet this demand is critical – but it needs to be undertaken on a large scale in the very near future, says the Foresight report. As yet, there have been few signs that local authorities have thought of moving to achieve these goals.
In the past, Britain kept its age profile low by encouraging workers from other nations, particularly southern countries including the Commonwealth, to come to Britain. “Most came to the UK when they were young,” says Harper. “A lot of them stayed, but equally a lot went back home after a certain time.
“The crucial point is that they have not been a burden to Britain. They were here to work and to give their children a good start in life, but were not necessarily here to end their lives in the UK. Certainly, the fear that Britain was going to be strained economically by all these ethnic minorities was demographically unfounded.”
Now many potential immigrants are likely to find their entry into the UK blocked after Brexit, reducing the numbers of foreign workers. “And they were very important to our healthcare service,” says Harper.
“We need the skilled workers and professionals but we also need the care workers. So losing immigrants from our society is going to have very serious consequences on the way we are going to look after our ageing population.”
The consequence of restricting immigration is illustrated dramatically by modelling carried out at the institute. If all migration to the UK were to cease overnight, every British citizen would have to work a further 18 months to compensate, it found. “If all migration into the UK was to be halted, then over the next five years, those coming up to retirement would have to work about one-and-a-half years longer just to maintain current output [of GDP],” says Harper.
One example of the impact of restricting immigration concerns the fruit pickers – almost exclusively Romanians and Bulgarians – who come every year to pick strawberries and raspberries. “Take away the fruit pickers and you lose the fruit farms, the packaging industries, the administration services and the transport and the local jobs,” says Harper. “It’s a chain reaction.”
At present, Britain still does relatively well in terms of life expectancy of its citizens – although trends are vulnerable to statistical blips, says Harper. “We have pushed death all the way back so that it occurs on average when a British person is in his or her 80s. As a consequence all it needs is a bad flu outbreak or a heatwave or a bitterly cold winter that leads to a few hundred extra deaths among older people for national figures to be affected.”
At the same time, our average lifespan is easily topped by nations such as France and Japan. (In France life expectancy for women is 85, for example. In the UK it is 83.)
“Sometimes that can seem a puzzle,” says Harper. “I can see why a British woman might have a life expectancy that is lower than a woman from Japan. They have very different diets, genetic makeup, and lifestyles there. But France has stumped me. France has a population very similar to Britain.”
However, French demographers have an intriguing answer. “They point out that women in northern France and in Britain have the same life expectancy, but it is different to that of the south.” People live longer there and that is probably because the Mediterranean diet takes effect.
“They eat lots of fresh fruit and veg, as well as fish, some dairy products, olive oil, a little bit of wine but not too much – and not much meat either – while they spend lots of time out in the sunshine and have lots of interaction across their lives with their family and friends.
“So the demographic line should not be one that goes through the Channel, but should really cut through the middle of France.”
France is not the only nation to have a Mediterranean lifestyle. Many other nations border that sea, and most have lower life expectancies. Italy – with the exception of Sardinia – still does badly, for example. “That is mainly because a huge part of the Italian population lives in the north where the lifestyle is more urban and less Mediterranean,” says Harper. “Similarly, Greece does relatively poorly because of its lack of healthcare and its higher levels of poverty.” However, Spain provides an exception. It once lagged behind in the life expectancy stakes but is now set to catch up with France.
Life expectancy varies significantly across the planet. The lowest – 46 years – is found in the Central African Republic and many others at the bottom of the league are also found in Africa. At the same time, rates often vary wildly within a nation’s borders. In Britain, these discrepancies are sometimes stark. Life expectancy for men born in Kensington and Chelsea is around 83 years, while for those born in some areas of Glasgow it is less than 73 years. The implications of these statistics were outlined last year in papers published in the BMJ and the journal Epidemiology. These suggested the inequality was growing.
“If you take men who are living in our most deprived areas, then they can expect at the age of 65 to make it into their late 70s. However, they will only have their health until the end of the 60s and will have ill health almost completely across their 70s.
”On the other hand, when you look at men living in the most affluent areas of Britain, you find that those at 65 will probably live to their late 80s. Crucially, they will not enter periods of ill health until they hit the end of their 70s. So not only do we have a massive difference in life expectancy but we have similar differences in healthy life expectancy.”
Earlier this year, Theresa May pledged to tackle these inequalities and promised to introduce measures that would give five years of extra healthy lifetime for everyone. That will be tricky for those living in the most affluent areas. For those living in Tower Hamlets in east London or Calton in Glasgow, where the deprivation can be intense, the undertaking will be immense.
“Only a complete revolution in our attitudes to ageing will bring that about,” says Harper. “We need a life course approach which ensures that every individual across their lives has the education and health to enable a long healthy life.
“Old age should be seen as that final, typically frail, period of life, and respected as such; all else is active adulthood.”