Retiring Britain: Poverty, discrimination and poor health
Analysis by Demos published by WRVS today highlights a range of areas in which older people in the UK are having poorer experiences of later life than many of their European counterparts. This is something that we should be concerned about for obvious moral reasons - a miserable old age is not something that any of us want for our relatives, friends, neighbours, or ourselves – as well as pragmatic reasons. We all know that population ageing means that people in the UK are living longer than ever before. This means that the generation that is currently retiring at age 65 will be here to stay – on average for another two decades.
Our research presents analysis of the European Social Survey that compares the experiences of older people in the UK with older people in Germany, Netherlands and Sweden across five categories: income and poverty; health and health provision; well-being; social inclusion and age discrimination. This research finds that the UK performs worst in two out of five categories (income measures and age discrimination). Overall the UK ranks third for experiences of ageing, with Germany ranking fourth.
The Netherlands and Sweden perform best in this study, suggesting that their older citizens experience an overall better quality of life. Sweden ranks first overall, while older people in the Netherlands are on average wealthier and more sociable.
There are four key messages that we need to take away from this study. First, older people in the UK are at a much greater risk of poverty than their European neighbours in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands. More than a fifth of UK pensioners are considered at risk of poverty, compared to 6 per cent of Dutch pensioners. This should be a wake-up call for our policymakers.
Second, this study highlights clear problems with the health status of older people in the UK. Older people in the UK have the highest prevalence of life-limiting illness among the four countries and they also have the highest rates of alcohol consumption and obesity. If healthy life expectancy continues to increase more slowly than life expectancy, older people in the UK will spend an increasing number of years in poor health. Currently the average British man spends 7.4 of his final years in poor health (compared to 4.6 years in Sweden), while women are unhealthy for their last 9 years (compared to 6.6 years in Sweden). British people to take a serious look at their lifestyles and wonder whether those extra calories, bottles of wine, and nights at home in front of the TV are worth spending an extra three years of their life in poor health. Policymakers need to consider the costs of failing to intervene to improve public health.
Third, while older people in the UK did not have the lowest wellbeing and social participation overall (this unenviable spot was taken by Germany), they reported the highest rates of loneliness. This has serious implications for older people’s health as well as happiness – according to a 2010 meta-analytic study, people who lack social relationships experience the same increased risk of death as smokers. Other data suggest that fewer people in the UK volunteer or participate in sports and leisure organisations than people in Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany. Local and national active ageing strategies will need to consider how we can boost rates of British older people’s social participation.
Finally, the UK also performed most poorly on indicators of age discrimination. Nearly half of British people think that age discrimination is widespread, compared to only a third in Germany. Our study also found that UK older people are most likely to feel they have been shown a lack of respect because of their age, and they are most likely to admit to having negative feelings towards people in their 20s. Effectively, age discrimination goes both ways in the UK. This may be partly explained by the fact that three quarters of people in the UK believe that ‘there are not enough opportunities for older and younger people to meet and work together’, compared to less than half in the Netherlands. If we are serious about the need to tackle age discrimination, this suggests that increasing opportunities for meaningful intergenerational contact is good place to start.