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What do you want to be when you’re older? A common question asked of children. But why are we not asking people over 50 the same question?
Getting old is life. But it seems to me that we are failing to inspire people to pursue ambition and aspiration in later life. Think about it, what images do we see about getting older? The life insurance ad, the Christmas get-together, the overcrowded A&E department during a winter crisis? What about the adventure holiday, the university brochure, the latest tech, smartphone, art or music festival? Rarely do we see visions of later life filled with activity and opportunity. Society has written us off.
And this is even more true when it comes to work. Even though we’re now expected to work into our late sixties and beyond, employers remain fixated on graduates and youthful fast-trackers. In your early thirties, you are still considered full of potential and eminently recruitable, but by your early forties, not so much. It seems to me that when you reach the ‘free bus pass milestone’ the only opportunity presented is a long journey to Pontefract and back.
The constant narrative peddled by our politicians and dominating our headlines is the pensioner ‘drain’ on society. Who is going to foot the bill for health and social care? Can we really afford the winter fuel allowance? Will there be enough in the pension pot when I retire? Headlines like ‘dementia tax’ and ‘Politicians are sizing up your homes’ don’t lead to positive, solid policy decisions that all of us can buy into. They shock and panic us into retreat and spread the message that retirement will be insecure and unpredictable.
It is a fact that longer life is harder to fund for both the individual and the state but living and working longer should be celebrated and embraced as an opportunity. We need to think positively about age, stop writing people off too quickly and refrain from scaring people with a message that you cost too much, you’re living too long and you have assets we need to take away to pay for you. We need a shift in language and tone.
Thirty-somethings today are not putting enough money aside for retirement. The late arrival of pension auto-enrolment, the stagnation of wealth and high housing costs for the vast majority of people means that a high proportion of salaries go towards housing and childcare costs, and too little into saving for retirement and covering potential costs of care. This, alongside the groundswell of baby-boomers reaching retirement age, provides a huge policy challenge for politicians; how to pay for the state pension and how to provide decent quality care when we need it. It may well mean that the answer lies in the value of the properties we own, but given most people have limited savings and view their homes as their retirement fund, and a ‘pot’ to help the next generation, we can see why this idea is not welcomed by many people.
We know that health and social care is under pressure and we need to fund later life. But let’s stop pushing the negative commentary and language and put our heads together to come up with some solutions we can all buy into. If the only images we see of later life are dark and dreary; if the only language we use is of cost, crisis and challenge, then is it any wonder that people find the prospect of ageing frightening? Let’s be honest, most of us don’t really like what is currently being offered to us in later life - poor health and social care, loneliness and isolation. This might not even be the reality but the images convey this and that is why we are not prepared to give up our homes for it.
Many of the solutions can come from purposeful design. Investing in technology, buildings and communities. The question should be ‘what are we willing to invest our assets in?’ Have we even asked the question? I remember reading about a woman who spent over 10 years sailing around the world on a cruise ship because it was cheaper and more appealing than checking into a residential care home. Surely we can do better than this?
The General Election opened a debate and we should welcome it. Now it’s over let’s start talking to people about later life - what we want and need to make life after 55 years happier and healthier. We also need to ask what we are prepared to pay to get it. This is a once in a generation opportunity to start a debate on living longer.
And the debate will be an uncomfortable one - so I’ll start by putting it out there straight away... Should we work longer? How long should a working life be? Forecasts suggest that today’s 10-year-olds have a 50% chance of living to at least 103. We shouldn’t worry about that, we should celebrate it. But that’s a lot of time spent in retirement living off a pension. We should explore how we could work differently for longer, how technology can assist and allow us to work in a different way past the traditional cut off age of 65.
Many people aged 65 and over are living active and fun-filled lives. And that’s great news. Quite a few are still working and engaging their experienced and talented minds. Should we accept a longer working life to pay for our care as we age? If we are working longer, how should the type of work or the conditions we work in adapt to get the best out of us for the economy and business at large? What is the payoff for younger generations if the triple lock on pensions is removed? So much to discuss and consider, so let’s start.
It’s time to move from the extreme, alarmist commentary on ageing and start a considered conversation, shifting emphasis to the asset of living longer and living well and redefining how we live, work and look after each other. After all, this is about us. Bus pass or no bus pass we will all age.
This article was first published on Huffpost UK.
Design Council is currently running Transform Ageing, a pioneering programme to improve people’s experience of ageing.Find out more