Experts defuse demographic timebomb of ageing UK

The British Medical Journal suggests the number of dependent older people has fallen in the UK. Picture: Neil Hanna
The British Medical Journal suggests the number of dependent older people has fallen in the UK. Picture: Neil Hanna
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The impact of the ageing population has been exaggerated and the number of dependent older people in the UK is actually falling, experts in Scotland have claimed.

In recent years, politicians have issued stark warnings about the effect increasing life expectancy will have on public services such as the NHS and welfare system, often to justify austerity measures.

But experts writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) have now called the warnings into question, suggesting that the number of dependent older people has fallen in the UK and elsewhere.

Jeroen Spijker and John MacInnes, from Edinburgh University, said the standard indicator of population ageing – the old age dependency ratio (OADR) – was based on a flawed assumption.

The OADR is the number of people who have reached state pension age divided by the number of people of working age – 16 to 54 – giving the proportion of older people relative to those who support them through taxes.

The researchers said this defined all people above pension age as dependent, regardless of their economic, social or medical circumstances – overlooking the fact that a lengthening life expectancy made these older people “younger” and healthier than their counterparts from previous decades.

For example, in 1900, a woman of 65 in England and Wales could expect to live for another 11 years. Now, she can anticipate another 21 years.

The paper said the OADR also assumed everyone of working age actually worked, though figures showed that in Britain there were more dependent people of working age than older people who did not work. This, the researchers said, meant that using age to define the working population made little sense.

It led them to develop their own measure, the “real elderly dependency ratio” – the number of adults with a life expectancy of 15 years divided by the number of people in employment, regardless of their age.

When they used this measure, the researchers found old-age dependency had fallen by a third over the past four decades in the UK and was likely to stabilise around its current level.

In the 1970s and early 80s, this meant there were about three workers for every dependent older person. In contrast, the ratio is now about four to one.

The researchers said: “We should not assume population ageing itself will strain health and social care systems.”

They said demand for services would rise, but this would be driven by other factors, such as new treatments for patients of all ages.

Prof MacInnes said: “Sometimes you hear people saying that 60 is the new 50, and that is absolutely right.

The health status of people and the life expectancy of 60-year-olds is pretty much the same as it would have been for 50-year-olds 20 or 30 years ago.”

A spokesman for Age Scotland said: “These findings will help dispel the myth that our ageing population is a burden. On the contrary, it is something to be celebrated.

“Older people have a great deal to offer society: as workers, active citizens, cultural contributors and carers.”