‘I’m one of the lucky ones, I’m financially OK’: welcome to ageing Britain, where

As an hour-long exercise class in Cromer’s parish hall culminates in a triumphant ribbon routine, irrepressible instructor Annamarie Sterne addresses the group. “Has anyone got a knot?” One or two raise their hands, before another baffled attendee discovers she’s managed to swirl two knots into her ribbon. “How did that happen?!” she laughs.

The 40-strong class overwhelmingly made up of women over 65 – the oldest, Anne, 84, completed the entire routine – is a picture of health in older age. A few opt to exercise from a chair during the floor work, but everyone has put their all into the hour. “Their attitude is amazing,” says Sterne, who calls her class the “crème de la crème” of the north Norfolk town’s older population.

There should be little surprise at the demand for Sterne’s classes, and not just because of her infectious enthusiasm. One in three people in north Norfolk are now 65 or over, making it the oldest place in England and Wales in terms of the proportion of pension-age people.

Its leading status was revealed in new census data underlining what statisticians, economists and politicians have known for years: that Britain is ageing. There are now more people aged 65 and over in England and Wales than children aged under 15. The number of people aged over 64 has surged by 20% over the past decade in England and Wales, to 11.1 million people. Nearly one in five people are aged over 65.

The sweeping implications of this demographic revolution can scarcely be overestimated. From Tory pressure on Boris Johnson over tax and spend, to the crisis in ambulance waiting times, so many of the pressing issues of the day are being impacted by the large cohort of people who have worked their way into older age.

Despite years to plan, however, many experts are questioning whether the country has prepared properly for the economic, cultural and political changes this is driving.

Children waving union flags during a visit of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh to Chadwell Heath, east London, in 2015.
In England and Wales, those aged 65 and over outnumber children under 15. Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

The impact is uneven, both geographically and economically. Several of the women in Sterne’s fitness class tell a similar story of holidaying in seaside Cromer before retiring there. The fact that so many people have taken a similar decision has advantages. The women reel off a packed social calendar. Mondays, singing. Wednesdays, art. Friday evenings, drinks by the pier. The local WI has a waiting list.

Yet they are also aware that, as fit, able people with the means to support themselves, they are the lucky ones. “I’m perfectly OK, financially,” says Marg Hooper, 69. “But, my goodness, I feel for those that are not. It’s hard in that position.”

Sue Sansby, 75, agrees. “It’s geared to retired people here. And we can’t compare ourselves with a 75-year-old living in a high-rise. If you’re a pensioner with a private pension as well, you’re probably OK. Everybody’s not in that position.”

While a strong community has developed in Cromer, the concentration of older people highlights the pressures on health, housing and social care seen nationally. “North Norfolk is a wonderful place to live, and people move here for that reason,” said Tim Adams, leader of North Norfolk district council. “This trend is only going to continue for years. I’d question if we’ve prepared enough for that. I know of a lot of households that have unmet social care needs now. That leaves them reliant on charities, neighbours and family members. It’s putting a lot of strain on people. But people who work in social care also need housing. That’s another area where we really haven’t done enough.”

Aideen Young, of the Centre for Ageing Better, described the census figures as another wake-up call, showing the urgency needed to change attitudes to work, reach older people in poverty, make homes that are suitable for them to live in – and tackle a pervasive ageism that she says remains firmly in place. “In spite of the fact that we’ve known that this is happening, are we getting it right? No, we definitely don’t think so,” she said.

Britain lost a chance to be ahead of the game. As premier, David Cameron ordered a major study into all the impacts and implications of Britain’s ageing. With buy-in from Cameron, his policy guru Oliver Letwin and then cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood, the Future of an Ageing Population report made sweeping recommendations on work, training, housing, health, transport, technology and care. There was just one problem: it was published within weeks of the 2016 EU referendum, and Whitehall has been fighting crises ever since.

“Potentially, prior to Brexit, we were going to be doing pretty well,” said Sarah Harper, professor of gerontology at Oxford university, who chaired the report’s expert group. “I think we would have been one of the leading countries in sorting this out. That has obviously passed and there are now huge problems. The fact that we can’t even get health and social care sorted out shows that we have dropped down the league in our ability to be able to tackle this.”

She added that Britain’s ageing process isn’t just about longer lives, but also a relative drop in younger workers. Birth rates are down and immigration is being reduced. “We knew we were going to be in a very tight labour market – this is not a surprise,” she said. “Brexit and the pandemic have made that so much worse for us.”

The consequences are being acutely felt in Westminster. The prime minister, whose premiership is already under siege, has been attacked by hawkish Tory MPs over the size of the state and his refusal to heed their calls to cut tax. However, David Willetts, the Tory peer who has studied demographic pressures for years, says the impact of our ageing population has driven the politics. “In 2017, we saw more people celebrating their 70th birthday than ever before in British history,” he said.

“This big cohort, who were hanging out in Carnaby Street in the 1960s and rioting in Grosvenor Square against the Vietnam war, are now all collecting their pensions and pushing up health spend and pension spend, even before you add in the increase in life expectancy.

“Margaret Thatcher was operating in an environment where she had a relatively small number reaching pension age. We had a bulge of workers with relatively few children and relatively few old people. And that is a very different environment for controlling public spending than the one we’ve got today.”

Participants at Annamarie Sterne’s exercise class at Cromer parish hall, North Norfolk.
Exercise class at Cromer parish hall, north Norfolk. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Observer

With the greater numbers, the divide between the haves and have-nots in later life is ever more stark. Willetts thinks something has to give. He believes the “triple lock” that sees the state pension rise by inflation, earnings or 2.5% – whichever is highest – is “an unsustainable ratchet pushing up pension income”.

He adds that the pension age may have to increase again, an issue being studied by an independent review for the Department for Work and Pensions. He believes those older people now struggling to find work and support themselves should be “a priority for focused public spending rather than the generality of pensioners”.

Given the labour shortages emerging across the economy after Brexit and the pandemic, it seems extraordinary that older workers should have difficulty securing work. Yet something strange is happening in the workplace. Over the past two years, the number of economically inactive people aged 50-64 has risen by 250,000 – a major reversal in the trend over the past decade. Covid appears to have hit older workers disproportionately, but many experts believe a persistent ageism also remains. Not enough employers have adjusted to the reality that more older workers are both needed and capable of doing the job, they say.

Andy Briggs, chief executive of the Phoenix Group pensions company and the government’s “business champion” for ageing society and older workers, pointed to research showing applications from older workers had far less chance of leading to an interview than younger applicants with similar capabilities for the job.

He also said older workers rule themselves out of jobs they could do – but added that there was action the government could take. “One in four over-50s have significant care responsibilities for an elderly relative,” he said. “And yet the vast majority of businesses don’t have any form of care policy. So, ultimately, people end up more often than not given the choice of, ‘Do I care for my elderly parents or do I work? Because I can’t do both’.”

He called on ministers to introduce five days of statutory carers leave as promised in the Tory manifesto. The pledge was missing from the Queen’s…

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