Addressing our annual Grigor McClelland lecture, Anna Dixon, Chief Executive of the Centre for Ageing Better, said changes in life expectancy are radically going to change our whole experience of ageing and we need to wake up to the huge challenge.
Dixon cited how someone born in 1914 had only a 1% chance of reaching 100, yet children under 10 today have more than a 50% chance of reaching the milestone. “But it is critical that those extra years are lived well.”
She said there was a need to completely rethink our fixation on the three stages of life – education, work and retirement – while there was also a need to shift to a much more positive narrative around older people and to discard negative stereotypes.
A good life
In terms of what makes for a good later life, Dixon said it boiled down to good health, financial security, good social conditions and a sense of purpose.
In terms of health, she said extra years of life were not necessarily extra years of good health, which meant we need a concerted focus from the government and the NHS on promoting healthy ageing.
There are also stark inequalities across the country, and within specific geographies such as Greater Manchester. She said much of this was down to people experiencing poor outcomes early in life and then remaining disadvantaged throughout their life course. “There is a cumulative disadvantage and we have to address inequalities across the life course.”
Dixon said targeted campaigns such as reducing alcohol consumption and increasing physical activity among older people were extremely important, as was a focus on the environment in which older people live. “Minor adaptations in the home can have far-reaching benefits,” she added.
We also need to think about how we can use technology more. “There is huge potential from electronic devices. How do we harness the potential of technology that exists now, as well as harness the technology of the future?”
In terms of financial security, Dixon said the story was much more positive with pensioner poverty halving since the 1990s. However women’s lifetime earnings were still much lower than for men, while the stereotype of the baby boomer generation enjoying constant luxury holidays was simply wrong. “Many older households are financially squeezed,” she added.
More needed to also be done to encourage people to stay in work longer and to tackle age bias in the workplace.
“Ageism is not recognised in the same way as sexism or racism. It is very pervasive in our culture and will need a whole range of actions to address it. Yet we hear very little about the contributions that older people make. For instance in 2013 it was estimated that the value of care provided by grandparents was worth £7.3bn. Despite these contributions older people are often made to feel a burden.”
Dixon said it was “neither acceptable, nor inevitable” that later life be a period of hardship, ill health, disability or loneliness. “Not ignoring the fact that many people experience poverty, live in poor housing, and don’t have the care and support they need, I believe we do have an opportunity to act so that more people have the opportunity to enjoy longer lives.”
Dixon has been CEO of the Centre for Ageing Better since 2015 after joining from the Department of Health where she was Director of Strategy and Chief Analyst.
Our annual Grigor McClelland lecture is held in memory of the founder and first Director of Manchester Business School who died in 2013.
If you missed the lecture, you can find Anna Dixon's presentation slides here.