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Fears of demographic timebomb in UK are unfounded, says study

Fears that the UK will be hit by a demographic timebomb – in which fertility rates fall at the same time that longevity increases – are likely to be unfounded, according to analysis from the Office for National Statistics.

While it’s true that people are living longer, healthier lives – on average, at 65 years old, women still have a quarter of their lives left to live and men just over one fifth – the analysis found that, as the large, post-war cohorts die out, there will be 4.3 million fewer older people with life expectancies of 15 years or more than previously forecast.

“The population is ageing far more slowly when prospective rather than traditional measures of ageing are used,” said Ngaire Coombs from the ONS’s Centre for Ageing and Demography.

Traditional forecasts of ageing, including the number and proportion of those aged 65 and older, show that the UK population is ageing at a significant rate. In 2018, 18% of the total UK population was aged 65 years and over, compared with 10.8% in 1950 – and a predicted 24.8% in 2050.

But, by looking at the percentages of those with a remaining life expectancy (RLE) of 15 years or less, the analysis found numbers have remained relatively constant since the 1950s.

Ageing graphic

“In 1981, the number and proportion of people aged 65 years and older in the UK population exactly matched those with RLE 15 years or less,” explained Coombs. But, he added, while the numbers of those aged 65 years and over increased between 1981 and 2017, the numbers with RLE15 decreased to 7.4 million as the older and larger, post-war baby boomer generation dies off and is replaced by smaller, younger cohorts.

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“Why do we see these different patterns between population ageing measured by traditional measure and prospective measures?” Coombs asked. “This is because the age at which RLE is 15 has increased over time in line with improvements in life expectancy.

“But by 2050, those with RLE15 will be in their mid-70s, and there are projected to be fewer 75 year olds in the population in 2050 than there are 65 year olds,” he said.

Men aged 70 in 2017 had a remaining life expectancy of 15 years while women aged 70 could expect to live 17 years longer. That means a man aged 70 today has an equivalent life expectancy to a man aged 65 in 1997 – and a woman aged 70 is equivalent to a woman aged 65 in 1981.

In terms of health, the analysis shows that men aged 70 in 2017 have similar levels of poor general health as men aged 65 in 1997. Women aged 70 in 2017 have similar levels of limiting longstanding illness as those aged 60 in 1981.

“Regardless of whether population ageing is measured by chronological age or prospective age, in absolute numbers there will be more older people, who are likely to have health and social care needs, in the future. And although health at any given chronological age seems to have improved over time, we do not know whether this will continue and, if so, at what rate,” said Coombs.

Patrick Thomson, senior programme manager from the Centre for Ageing Better, said the analysis proved the UK needed a radical shift in its attitude to work. “This means doing away with the ageist and outdated stereotypes holding us back from reaping the benefits of older workers – both for employers and the wider economy,” he said.

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