Mbah Ghoto probably wasn’t 146 years old – as Indonesian officials recorded his age when he died earlier this week – but he was undoubtedly very old, and almost certainly a supercentarian (aged over 110). Also this week, and closer to home, Buckingham Palace announced that Prince Philip will step down from public engagements later this year at the comparatively sprightly age of 96. Had he known, Mr Ghoto would presumably have wished the Duke of Edinburgh a long and happy retirement. These stories underline one of the most important social trends affecting virtually every country in the world: ageing.
Currently, the UK is home to around 12m over 65s, of which about 3m are over 80. In 20 years time, these figures will rise to 18m and 6m respectively, and the over 65 population will account for 25% of all people (18% currently).
This trend will change the UK economically, socially and culturally. The demographic centre of gravity will continue to drift upwards, with older cohorts – who vote enthusiastically, consistently and predictably – fawned over by politicians of all stripes.
In the not too distant future the retirement age will be forced to change, with people required to work later into life to keep the balance of working and non-working people (the dependency ratio) in some sort of check.
In recent weeks the Prime Minister – in election mode, nonetheless – has not assured older voters that the triple lock on pensions will be protected. In the future, such luxuries will become much harder to afford.
Many older people will embrace continued activity beyond the state-recognised retirement age and continue to remain economically active into later life – as long as it is on their terms. Others will be forced to keep working, often while managing long-term, chronic health conditions, and family members will be required to play an active role in caring for the growing numbers needing such care.
As is often the case, long term thinking about future challenges is in short supply, and the extensive history of political rhetoric around reducing immigration is one example here. Over the last 10 years, the UK’s fairly high net migration in take had served to reduce speed at which the dependency ratio rose.
The UK’s departure from the EU will likely result in lower migration, a more rapidly ageing population, greater demand on workers and eventually an inevitable rise in the retirement age.
Longevity of the type of Mbah Ghoto’s claim is without precedent and the number of supercentarians in the UK is currently small enough to be counted on one’s fingers, but in 25 years’ time will number into the hundreds. These are remarkable and rare examples of extreme old age, but ones that serve to underline the extent and speed of our ageing society. Far less rare in the decades to come will be examples like Prince Philip, of people remaining economically active into their 70s, 80s and 90s. If this occurs through personal choice and desire to remain involved and active it should be embraced, but for many it will be forced by needlessly imbalanced demographics.