On ageing and immigration – why we shouldn’t worry about either

11th Sep, 2015

A regular feature of this blog is debunking popular myths and the misleading use of statistics. Where to begin; a couple of weeks ago was another scare story about ageing and health. Oh and then there’s been all the fuss about immigration as a result of the migrant crisis.

Let’s start with ageing. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation released a report of their analysis of global ageing trends. Headlined Life expectancy climbs worldwide but people spend more years living with illness and disability it highlighted the increasing length of time people spend in ill health at the end of their lives.

You’d think from the headline that something terrible has happened but look at the figures and it reveals nothing much. It’s true that healthy life expectancy hasn’t gone up as much as life expectancy but it has still increased, so that’s good news. We’re having a longer and healthier life.

Yes, the length of illness towards the end has gone up but when you look at it as a proportion of people’s lives spent in good health the picture changes somewhat. This has changed from 87.1% in 1990 to 87.1% in 2013! It is true that the figures to three decimal places are 87.136% to 87.133% a decline of .003% but that equates to about two months out of one’s life. Is this really something we should be worrying about?

Also, these figures are global. In the developed world, things are rather different. In the UK for example, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology noted a few years ago in its report on healthy life expectancy: ‘disability data suggest that there has been an increase in those over retirement age who are able to carry out most daily activities’.  Its conclusion is that ‘the general consensus in the academic community is that these trends reflect increased years of mild disability and a decline in severe disability’.  Meanwhile, more recently a Kings Fund report concluded that ‘[t]his suggests that that the extra years of life will not necessarily be years of ill health’. 

This is not to say that ageing populations don’t present challenges for modern society. If people still expect to retire at ages determined a hundred years ago then developed countries are going to run out of available workers. This is where migration comes in.

In an article in the Financial Times titled Pepper the robot cannot rescue us from demographic decline Diane Coyle asks the question: can technology and innovation compensate for a shrinking and ageing population? Her answer (which we would agree with only to a certain extent) is no. This represents a serious problem to those countries like Germany, China, Italy and Russia where, thanks to fertility rates being below replacement levels, populations are declining.

Her bold and contentious solution given the fear-mongering of so many political debates, as she puts it, is that we need to ‘welcome immigrants’. Whether this happens is another matter of course. But there are some clear implications:

People will need to work beyond current retirement ages (it must be remembered that thanks to holidays and a shorter working week for many people – certainly compared to 30, 50 or a 100 years ago – the total hours spent over a lifetime has been consistently falling for decades);

Employers need to hold on to (and indeed encourage) older workers;

Older workers need to get realistic about what age they might work to;

Migrants should be welcomed (especially in those countries where populations are falling);

The benefits of technology and productivity need to be understood and promoted. They also need to be shared across society (see blog When machines rule the world)

We need to embrace the use of technology into service jobs (let’s hope that Diane Coyle isn’t right about the usefulness of Pepper and his/her future incarnations).