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The United Kingdom's Ageing Population

UK Population Growth Slows Down as Population Ages

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The United Kingdom's Ageing Population

Baby Boomers are like to present challenges and opportunities as the population of the United Kingdom ages.

Maria Teijeiro/Getty Images
Updated June 18, 2014
Like many countries across Europe, the United Kingdom's population is ageing. Although the number of elderly people is not rising as quickly as some countries such as Italy or Japan, the UK’s 2001 census showed that for the first time, there were more people aged 65 and older than under 16 living in the country.

Between 1984 and 2009, the percentage of the population aged 65+ rose from 15% to 16% which is an increase of 1.7 million people. Over same period, the proportion of those under 16 fell from 21% to 19%.

  • By 2040, it is estimated that there will be 15 million people aged 65 or over, compared to 8.7 million under 16.
  • Within this older age cohort, the most rapid rise has been made by the ‘oldest old’ who are aged 85+. Their numbers have increased from 660,000 in 1984 to 1.4 million in 2009.
  • By 2034, it is predicted that there will be 3.5 million people in the elderly age range, accounting for 5% of the UK population. Nearly 90,000 of these will be over 100 years old – seven times the 2009 figure.

Why is the Population Ageing?

The two main factors that contribute to ageing populations are improved life expectancy and falling fertility rates.

Life Expectancy

Life expectancy started rising in the United Kingdom around the mid-1800s when new agricultural production and distribution techniques improved the nutrition of large proportions of the population. Medical innovations and improved sanitation later in the century led to further increases. Other factors that have contributed to a longer life span include improved housing, cleaner air and better average living standards. In the UK, those born in 1900 could expect to live to either 46 (males) or 50 (females). By 2009, this had risen dramatically to 77.7 (males) and 81.9 (females).

Fertility Rate

The Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is the average number of children born per woman (assuming all women live for the length of their child bearing years and have children according to their given fertility rate at each age). A rate of 2.1 is regarded as the population replacement level. Anything lower means a population is ageing and decreasing in size.

In the UK, the fertility rate has been below replacement levels since the early 1970s. The average fertility is presently 1.94 but there are regional differences within this, with Scotland’s fertility rate currently 1.77 compared with 2.04 in Northern Ireland. There is also a shift to higher mean pregnancy ages – women giving birth in 2009 were on average one year older (29.4) than those in 1999 (28.4).

There a lot of factors that have contributed to this change. These include improved availability and effectiveness of contraception; the rising costs of living; increasing female participation in the labour market; changing social attitudes; and the rise of individualism.

Impacts on Society

There is a lot of debate about what impacts an ageing population will have. Much of the focus in the UK has been on the impact on our economy and health services.

Work and Pensions

Many pension schemes, including the UK’s state pension, operate on a pay-as-you-go basis where those that are currently working pay for the pensions of those currently retired. When pensions were first introduced in the UK in the 1900s, there were 22 people of working age for every pensioner. By 2024, there will be less than three. In addition to this, people now live a lot longer after their retirement than in the past so can be expected to draw on their pensions for a much longer period.

Longer retirement periods may lead to an increased level of pensioner poverty, especially amongst those who have not been able to pay into occupational schemes. Women are particularly vulnerable to this. They have a higher life expectancy than men and can lose their husband’s pension support if he dies first. They are also more likely to have taken time out of labour market raise children or care for others, meaning they may not have saved enough for their retirement.

In response to this, the UK government recently announced plans to remove the fixed retirement age meaning that employers can no longer force people to retire once they reach 65. They have also announced plans to increase the retirement age for women from 60 to 65 by 2018. It will then be raised to 66 for both men & women by 2020. Employers are also being encouraged to employ older workers and specialist initiatives are being put in place to support older people in returning to work.

Healthcare

An ageing population will put increasing pressure on the public resources such as the National Health Service (NHS). In 2007/2008, the average NHS expenditure for a retired household was double that of a non-retired household. The sharp rise in the number of ‘oldest old’ also puts a disproportionate amount of pressure on the system. The UK Department of Health estimates three times more is spent on a person aged over 85 compared to those aged 65-74.

Positive Impacts

Although there are a lot of challenges arising from an ageing population, research has also identified some of the positive aspects that an older population can bring. For example, old age doesn’t always lead to ill health and ’baby boomers’ are predicted to be healthier and more active than previous generations. They tend to be wealthier than in the past due to high levels of home ownership.

It is also noted that healthy retirees are able to provide care to their grandchildren and more likely to be involved in community activities. They are more inclined to support the arts by attending concerts, theatres and galleries and some studies show that as we get older, our satisfaction with life increases. In addition, communities are likely to become safer as older people are statistically less likely to commit crimes.

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