Age, ageing and older people’s issues

In the first of a series of articles, Bill Johnston looks the so-called troublesome demographics.

This is the first in a series of three linked articles on the implications of an ageing population for Scottish politics and civil society. This article outlines the demographic issues, and challenges the current ‘dependency’ framing of retirement. Current Scottish Government innovations are described as offering a platform for critical dialogue and contributions from the left. Subsequent articles will confront ageism and develop the arguments for a rights-based approach to ageing. Some of the issues raised may also resonate with age-related aspects of the debates over Scottish independence (see Craig Dalzell, The Demographics of Independence, 2018 edition: A study of polling on and since the 2014 referendum, Common Weal) and democracy more generally. My view is that demographic ageing is a key issue for the left’s challenge to neo-liberalism and requires a much higher profile amongst commentator’s and activists.

The population of Britain has undergone a fundamental demographic shift in age structure including: falling birth rates; longer life expectancy; increase in the average age (see British-Irish Council (2016) Population Ageing Society: Policy Implications; ‘Foresight Report’ (2016). Future of an Ageing Population, Office for Science; and Scottish Science Advisory Council (SSAC) Reaction to the UK Government Office for Science Foresight report ‘Future of an Ageing Population’). This requires substantial changes in policy and practice. In effect, we are living in a society where the majority of people are in older age groups and this trend is set to continue. At the same time, key concepts like ‘old age’, ‘retirement’ and ‘state pension age’ are being reframed in a public narrative shaped by a neo-liberal agenda. Ageing is presented as entailing unsustainable pension costs with equally unsustainable associated health and care costs (J. Macnicol (2015) Neoliberalising Old Age, Cambridge University Press; ‘Cridland Report’ (2017) State Pension age independent review: final report, DWP). Thus, state policy links retirement with the concept of pensioner dependency on economically active age groups, i.e., the ratio of older ‘dependents’ to those of working age.

Social attitudes based on a dependency concept of retirement and old age can be corrosive in policy debates, whilst also creating intergenerational tensions. The cynical manipulation of the apparent material differences between generations creates a narrative of blaming older people for the problems of younger people and promoting the notion that the only way to support the young is to penalise the old. Such a distorted view of ageing and older people should be challenged by commentators and activists of the left as part of their opposition to neo-liberalism and support for equality and human rights. The 2017 resistance to the May government’s strategies on pensioner winter fuel allowance, ‘triple lock’ on pensions and funding of social care, demonstrates that such a challenge would have popular resonance.

The recent Cabinet reshuffle introduced the post of Minister for Older People and Equalities, currently held by Ms McKelvie, MSP. This is welcome and offers greater focus and accountability within Scottish Government, the Parliament and civil society. The Plan for Government 2018/19 (https://beta.gov.scot/programme-for-government/) contains a very specific commitment to publish an Older People’s Framework by March 2019, thereby, providing an immediate focus for interventions. The potential scope of such a framework is substantial including areas such as: Transport; Adult Health and Social Care; Housing; Social Isolation & Loneliness; Funeral Poverty; Carers; Volunteering; Community Safety; Workplace Equality and the Older Workforce; Population Demographics. A key question will be whether the Framework perpetuates a negative, dependency construct of older age, or introduces a positive, rights based ethos.

Taken together these developments should benefit our democracy and encourage social cohesion but they raise important questions for the left: i) how effectively will the Scottish Government deliver and what are the barriers to change; ii) can the left develop a coherent, longer-term position on the ageing population whilst supporting demands for immediate improvements in areas like health and social care; and iii) what are the most effective ways of influencing the content of the Scottish Government’s proposed Older People’s Framework? These are questions for unions, political parties, community groups, and opinion formers to tackle during the rest of 2018 and into 2019. The period to end March 2019 is a key one for interventions to shape Scottish Government policy on older people and should be used to improve provision for current older age groups, and lay down a framework for the next twenty years for current ‘younger’ age groups to inherit.

Bill Johnston is Chair of the Scottish Seniors Alliance and writes in a personal capacity.

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