Old Age in Britain - a Challenge for the New Century

By Steele, Don W. | Contemporary Review, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Old Age in Britain - a Challenge for the New Century


Steele, Don W., Contemporary Review


There is nothing new about growing old. To grow old in Western society in the late twentieth century however is not only different, it is unique.

Richard Titmuss, whose contribution to the development of social policy in the sixties set a pattern for all that was to follow, frequently remarked that 'Reality starts with history' - and it is within a historical context that any analysis of current developments in relation to older people must be set.

What the Carnegie Foundation following its recent research has chosen to call 'The Third Age' is a new phenomenon. A period between work and dependency ('The Fourth Age') is now the experience of most people and questions about how this space will be filled and who will pay for it are high on all social policy and political agendas. It is not just the development of official policy however which has an effect upon the quality of life of older people but also the fears and uninformed prejudices of wider society. A flourishing mythology is nurtured by the media as though 'old people' were some kind of homogeneous entity with uniform characteristics, separate from the mainstream of society. The opposite is obviously the case but marginalization, with all its concomitant elements of discrimination and alienation is central to the current debate.

Two principal factors have contributed to the current situation. First, the place of work in social and familial structures has been paramount in Western societies for the past three hundred years. Social and personal identity is still closely tied to how a living is earned. Occupation remains an indicator of the place in society and social worth. As pointed out by J. K. Galbraith, in the first part of the nineteenth century 75 per cent of the male population was employed from the age of 10 to 65 and in 1850 the average working week was 70 hours. This gross domination of life by economic imperative has, fortunately, changed dramatically but the underlying philosophy remains. Only money which is 'earned' is seen as legitimate and those who will not or cannot contribute to the economy will be marginalised with all that this implies in terms of deprivation and stigma. Although the retirement age remains at 65 for men - to be applied to women also by the second decade of the next century - the fact is that for growing numbers of people employment in the traditional sense ends by the mid-fifties. The unequivocal link between work and the right to be a full member of society can no longer stand.

The second issue of major importance is the growth of longevity throughout the present century. In 1900 life expectancy was on average 46 for men and 49 for women. This has grown to 74 and 79 respectively. Although in the United Kingdom the percentage of those aged 65 or more will reduce slightly (.4 per cent) by 2000 the overall percentage in the population will grow from 14.9 per cent in 1980 to 20.4 per cent by 2040 with those over 80 increasing from 2.7 per cent to 5.1 per cent during the same period. It is important to keep this growth in numbers in proper perspective, remembering that in some other nations, for example Germany, France, and Canada the growth will be larger and the difficulties which may occur there need not be our experience. It can be shown, for example, that the frequently cited 'support ratios' whereby, it is claimed, the number of those in work will no longer produce sufficient wealth to meet the cost of those not working, has been exaggerated and used to make political points rather than explain the effects of a changing economy. Far greater changes have occurred at other times and relating to other groups - for example the growth in dependency among young people with the evolution, since the late nineteenth century, of education policy and the increase in average age on entry to work from ten to late teens or early twenties.

Inevitably, against a background of such radical change there will be conflicts of interest and means will be sought to conserve resources and justify policies. …

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