Ageing By Numbers

Imagine that you are Prime Minister and that this question is put to you by a journalist: Within a decade, the population of over-75s may well have increased by 2 million in the UK and the number of 60-74s by 1.6 million. Do you think these figures should invite some distinct policy innovations from HMG and, if so, what could they be?

Imagine that you are Marketing Director of a national supermarket chain and that this question is put to you by a member of your team : Should we now be addressing the needs of an ageing population in our advertising, digital communications, NPD, store design, recruitment programmes – with a focus and a purpose not applied previously – in confident and exclusive pursuit of higher sales and stronger customer loyalty?

Imagine that you are highly placed in the trends-and-forecasting business and that this question is put to you by a client : Yes, yes, yes – we have seen all these charts about the UK’s shifting demographics a hundred times before – but what we want to know is whether we in our business here (travel / cosmetics / confectionery / fashion / home insurance…) really need to do anything, ie anything at all, about it?

It is truly not easy to be decisive about the practical meaning of our ageing society. 

Reports / analyses / predictions about the subject tend to fall into two categories, staid and stale:

a)   Unyieldingly Gloomy. The dependency ratio is going to get screwed. The economy will not have enough productive capacity to guarantee growth. Health services will not cope. Etc, etc.

b)   Patronisingly Jaunty. We must properly exploit the wisdom and the energy of old people. An ageing workforce is great news. They were there for us and so now it’s time…. Enhanced life expectancy brings literally a new generation of possibilities. Etc, etc.

The purpose of this post is to offer these presumptions:

·      The debate about ageing has to be (and indeed soon will be) excised from the realm of Government reports, scholarly think-tank-talk, academic treatises and what we will loosely call grey political lobbying.

·      Just how advanced societies (such as the UK) will change as the new third age dawns – whether they will prosper or decline in the process – is the Great Imponderable of our adolescent century. This being true, we need a new investigative and predictive vocabulary. We should expect new social movements to emerge and  –  our opinion here  –  they will broadly be in the national interest. We can foresee a culture of contested leadership as different voices compete to dominate the rules of our Ageing Society.  

·      Specifically, the sense that ageing is some kind of ineluctable victimhood (or earthly nirvana) has to be converted into other and more valid norms and values.

Crucially, we have to connect this appreciation of the Ageing Society to the other sundry disruptions and creative destructions of our time ahead.

We can here speak of : the death of career; the remorseless rise of robotics; ubiquitous and instant and automatic connectivity; Artificial Intelligence and the electrification of Big Data; globalisation in the form of integrated markets (servicing local needs from any continent amid a universalising of consumer expectations); a swelling international middle-class and the craving-for-experiences which they carry into markets; rising incomes and possibly even sustained welfare provision in the West and beyond; the compression of human pain in medical service delivery; the spread and acceptance of personal life-management techniques (the ones that work well and compress morbidity)… Oh, all that the brave new world will allow.


Specifically, we require a third age culture which elevates the performative, the entrepreneurial and the opportunistic. This is the heart of our Rinkli Funstaz motif.

In the business of ageing-management, we must move from self-help (too many books in this groove) to practical self-actualisation.  For their part, businesses have to more deeply probe those spaces where a septuagenarian person might be interesting from a commercial / political / cultural point of view and where that person is really little different from the young folks who live next door. In itself, old age is not naturally / necessarily an exceptionalism in many theatres of life. But things are changing…

Therefore, what has to be researched? For example:

·      Whether septuagenarians, current and imminent, really think that either modern markets or public policies are servicing their true needs.

·      Whether the claims that third age individuals can “re-set” their genes and creatively confound the ageing process (via more informed and sophisticated lifestyle choices) can be sustained.

·      Whether there is depth in the notion of a Viagra Zeitgeist – the notion that scientific and medical innovation is busy revolutionising the fun agendas open to the over-60s to create the most adventurous mass third age in history.

Ageing has attracted ever richer psychological and scientific insights – insights powerful enough to call into question just how much personal surrender the business of entering the third age has to involve now. Titles like The 100 Year Life : living and working in an age of longevity (Gratton & Scott); Cracking the Ageing Code : the new science of growing old and what it means for staying young (Mitteldorf & Sagan); The Telomere Effect : a revolutionary approach to living younger, healthier, longer (Blackburn & Epel)… combine to speak to the reality that nuclear longevity is no longer a slow-burning fuse, no longer a realisation that takes ages to dawn on the wide social order. Longevity is now empowered with highly networkable knowledge, a savoir-vivre which permits the over-65s as a breed to compete ever more vigorously in the cross-generational quest for money, fame, love, sex, repute and recognition. 

The Shapes of Age to Come, Soon…

Soon, for instance, we will see those who were once called pensioners (no longer the right word) eschew the attractions of rural or seaside retirement-living and head back instead to the inner-cities, to the flats and studios of trendyville, to the re-brightened lights of metropole. To hell with Torquay. No more catalogue hammocks for that dreary Sunday afternoon. Never see the inside of an antiques fare again.

Soon, it will be all very normal for your septuagenarian relatives to improve their looks by selecting from the full range of invasive and non-invasive cosmetic treatments. Already in the USA, some 10% of all cosmetic procedures are procured by the over-65s; meanwhile, 30% of all procedures are sought by those in the 51-64 bracket. Specifically, around 60% of all facelifts are carried out again on those aged 51-64; they also make up around 30% of the Botox market. (Source : ASAPS). One can feel the pounding march of a fiftysomething citizenry preparing for (what used to be called) their retirement in ways that absolutely do not involve a new pair of supermarket sheepskin slippers every chilly solstice.

Soon, re-marriage and indeed cohabitation will become normal intimacy-furniture for the over-65s. The average length of a marriage now is just over thirty years (ending by divorce or death). As longevity bites and morbidity compresses, so it will be common enough for someone to marry at 30, divorce at 60 and find new and not necessarily permanent intimacy arrangements for the next thirty years of life. In recent years, about 40,000 British men per annum get divorced in their 40s; for those over-55 it is already now about half this figure. More, there was an increase of 33% in the marriage rate for women aged 65+ in the period 2002 to 2013. (Source : ONS for England & Wales). Meanwhile, over 2m prescriptions of Sildenafil – used to address erectile dysfunction  – are signed by doctors per annum in the UK now. It makes you think, no? (Source : HSCIC). Can we expect ever more normalised (soi-disant) Macron Coupling in our neighbourhoods : households with one partner 20/30 years older than the other? Yes, we can.

Soon, companies will seek to engage grey talent – not because the Government of the day urges them to be sensitive to needy decrepitude but because grey talent will be perceived as a heightened source of competitive advantage. For a start, the image of the 65-80 year olds as forever to be technologically bypassed is evaporating. By 2016, around three-quarters of 65-74s could be assumed to be regular internet users; the figure of the over-75s is around 40% and rising. (Source : ONS 2016). Of all the adults in the UK who have never used the internet, around 50% (2.8 million) are over 75. But this simply must change as that generation aged say 50-60 in 2002 (the first year in which a majority of British people had become regular internet users) reach the outskirts of the Rinkli Funstaz reservation. Two factors thus merge : the established familiarity with cyberspace that characterise that generation and the sheer ubiquity + effortlessness of 21st century connectivity. Increasingly, being online will require no more effort than breathing. Age in itself will no longer be a differentiating factor in this theatre; the assumption, prevailingly as popular as it is trite, that older people are irredeemably technophobic will soon die an abrupt death.

Let’s further energise our theme. By this mid-decade, less than 20% of Britons aged over 65 are labour-market active. As a society, we are set fair to be forced to acknowledge that this figure is unsustainably low. According to HMG’s Office for Science (2016), even in London only about 10% of over-65 women work; in the North East of England it is less than 7%. It is, in the context of these figures, precisely some of those who feel disadvantaged and oppressed by any enforced idleness who will imminently rise to defeat it. The macro-economic realities of their times do not constrain their life-choices or life-chances in the way they did in the bad old smokestack days. For smart greys can now kick the trends that do not suit them; they can assault the low expectations that may appear to essentialise their neighbourhoods; they can rise above.

For another dynamic is in play. There are 4.2 million Brits who work but do not work in a fixed place; some 40% of these are over-65. The same sources (Office for Science/Foresight 2016) tells us that already nearly 40% of (working) over-65s work at home. In addition, around 40% of the active over-65s are self-employed. Our point is that an historically high level of flexibility now attends the ambitions of any older citizen who wants fruitful and profitable work – for as long as he/she wants it. Not so long ago, you might have either laughed or been somewhat concerned if your granny told you she was about to launch her own catering business from home. Not any more. Ageing is a social construct and an ever wider permission is being progressively given to outbreaks of creativity and entrepreneurialism among those whose idea of excitement was once assumed to be a new pair of gardening gloves.

More, who wants to be victimised by weak pensions? In 2017, our DWP finds that 12 million people under-65 are “heading towards inadequate retirement incomes”. Specifically, nearly 40% of 55-64 year old women have no private pension savings at all. It is surely inevitable that many of these are going to wake up and smell the coffin, ie declare themselves simply unwilling to see their lives de-consumerised. More and more, the cumulated value of houses owned outright by over-60s will be actualised and activated in favour of SME creation. Along the way, the notion of lifelong learning – a notion much too staid and passive – will be replaced by the need for (what we might call) liquid skills, ie the purposeful acquisition of whatever tools are required at any stage in life to fix and sustain a labour market or career presence. Business schools will, in their pupil demography, grow grey and bald. And those weekend courses which once tempted the casual learner (of the older type) with saucy histories of the wives of Henry the Eight or with a guide to the Ice Age features still visible in one’s local landscape will struggle.

Intergenerational Friction?

In 1976 there came what turned out to be a very popular film for the time. In Logan’s Run (with Jenny Agutter, Michael York, etc), there is a future world, both dystopian and hedonistic, where everyone has to die / be killed by the state at the age of 30. The plot describes the attempt made by our hero and heroine to fight against this tyranny and liberate their fellow citizens to grow old in ways of their own choosing.

The notion that there is drama to be found in the conflicts between the generations and life’s often unseemly scrap for sustenance of all varieties is something of a cultural meme. In 2011, to alight briefly on just one example, the politician David Willetts produced : The Pinch – how the baby-boomers took their children’s future and why they should give it back. It was very influential in conditioning (at least to some degree) public and political attitudes towards the question : how should the spoils of life be distributed across the age segments and how can inequities be corrected via policy? The Pinch was and remains a spectacularly idiotic book and a pointlessly incendiary argument. The conflict is not between the ages; the real struggle is between a) the creation of a fully functional economy where just about everyone works earns, creates and, in an utterly healthy way, competes for as long as he/she wants or b) a social order that lazily locks the third age inside a vernacular of burdensome decline.

The thrust of our Rinkli Funstaz motif/momentum is indeed that so much of the vocabulary by which governments/companies/lobby factions alike might once have considered the our Ageing Society is now as clapped-out as sherry-before-dinner or a smoke at the bingo. Our whole culture has just become so much less age-defined. Much consequence flows from this – as we shall subsequently review. RF R US.