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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 December 2004, 09:35 GMT
Viewpoints: Britain's ageing society
By 2025, the number of people in Britain over the age of 60 will outnumber those under 25 for the first time. This sharp increase in 'third agers' poses a number of challenges for our society. BBC News Online asked six commentators for their perspective on ageing and what it means.

Rabbi Lionel Blue, writer and broadcaster

Donald Hirsch, adviser to Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Rosemary McCulloch, vice-chairman, Third Age Trust

Richard Best,
crossbench peer

Julia Huber, researcher, Demos

Peter Webb, chairman, Surrey Tax Action Group

Rabbi Lionel Blue

When I was 27 I noticed with horror that my hair was falling out in handfuls. So I decided to commit suicide at 30, by which time I'd be a baldie and no one would want me.

But not now! My seventies turned out nicer than my sixties and my sixties nicer than my fifties, and I wouldn't wish my teens and twenties on my worst enemies.

OK, my body is crumbling and I can't remember people's names, only their telephone numbers, but with age has come wisdom and it's a fair exchange.

I now know how to keep relationships. I don't try to fit my partner into some B-movie in my mind but have learnt to love the reality, not the fantasy.

I've also learnt not to be scared of rows, provided you keep your sense of humour.

In any good relationship a couple divorce and remarry each other many times because the world doesn't stand still, and neither do we and our needs.

I've also learnt to have my own religious experience.

I've found out that if I do something generous for the sake of heaven, heaven happens and the odour of sanctity lingers on for a few hours or days, just like some gorgeous Paris perfume.

I also learnt from my mother how to turn hanging round in hospitals into a treat.

I pack a waiting room survival kit with milk chocolate, a novel with a happy ending and some work to do. I wish I could crochet or knit.

As to the discomfort of dying - well, I've already had two shots of diamorphine in the last few years, so I hope to exit this world on a high.

As to death - well, it's something we can never know. We can't. We can only experience this life or whatever life lies beyond it.

I'm both curious and hopeful.

Lord Best, crossbench peer, House of Lords

If there is one thing every older person needs, it is a warm, manageable, secure home. Can society meet these needs in the decades ahead?

The problem is not one of supply. More than two thirds of older people own the home they live in and most will have paid off their mortgage.

But unfortunately that does not guarantee a suitable, decent home.

The problem is that many of these owners do not have sufficient income to pay for substantial repairs or for adaptations such as stair lifts.

A long-term solution to these problems is to make sure all new homes are built to be accessible and adaptable.

However most existing homes have not been designed with these thoughts in mind.

And most older people are loathe to move away from their current home, even when it is no longer suitable.

The answer may lie in "equity release" but there has been a natural reluctance from those who have worked hard to pay off their mortgage and have something to leave to their children, now to re-mortgage.

And the lending institutions have seldom offered funds on terms which appeal.

There is another approach. North of York, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has built a retirement community for older people who want to change not only their housing but their social circumstances.

Although there are well over 2000 retirement communities in the USA, this one remains unique in the UK despite its considerable popularity.

Problems regarding planning and of combining housing and care services are preventing the creation of more such projects.

But, like equity release, this is an idea whose time must come soon.

Donald Hirsch, special adviser, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Twenty years from now, a third of adults will be aged over 60. Will we be able to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle when we are older, or be reduced to poverty?

Recent trends have seen old Britain get richer overall, yet more unequal. The most frightening prospect for the future is that older people become relatively poorer overall, while inequality persists.

At present we have two nations in retirement, with about a fifth living only on state pensions and benefits, mainly around the poverty line, and many others able to enjoy a much better living standard than their parents and grandparents.

The risk in the future is that as the older population grows, there will be less to go round and a growing proportion of the population will have to fall back on means-tested support from the state.

The Pensions Commission has rightly pointed out that many middle-income people are making inadequate pension investments, and these groups risk faring worse than their parents in retirement.

The result would be that we return to a past where most pensioners have to make do with very basic incomes, except that this period of retirement hardship lasts much longer - up to 30 years.

The alternative is that we start to make more far-sighted decisions that balance living standards in working life and living standards in retirement.

A first step would be to stop taking for granted that economic growth brings continued rises in living standards among those currently earning.

By containing our appetite for ever more consumption, we could gradually divert more into taxes and pension savings which would avert poverty when we are older.

Julia Huber, researcher, Demos

Our society is ageing. In the next 10 years the large post-war baby boomer generation will reach retirement and older people will increasingly outnumber young people.

And after having transformed every single life-stage they have passed through, baby boomers are set to change the perception and meaning of older age.

Unlike their parents, baby boomers never experienced war-time deprivation and grew up in a consumerist society where their every whim was catered for.

This has made the ageing boomers savvy and demanding consumers with clear ideas about the kinds of services and products they want.

Boomers are happy to 'shop around' to find the best service and expect flexibility from providers to suit their needs.

The sheer numbers of ageing boomers, as well as the economic wealth of many of them, will ensure that we can no longer ignore older consumers.

Service providers from the public, private and voluntary sector will have to adapt and create the kind of products and services that will meet the needs of older people.

The ageing baby boomers' economic clout will make age discrimination an increasingly unviable option, and we will have to revise our attitudes towards older age and what it means.

Rosemary McCulloch, vice-chairman, Third Age Trust

In spite of the evidence to the contrary, many people in this country still believe in the notion of intellectual decline with age. The trouble is that older people are quite likely to accept this description of themselves.

I believe that, as a greater proportion of society becomes older, it is vital that this country should encourage the self-sufficiency and independence of the retired.

At present, voluntary organisations helping older people regularly use younger people to act as spokesmen, and pensioners' associations often emphasise dependence and disability when speaking to governments.

As chairman of both a local and a regional group of Universities of the Third Age in Lincolnshire I have seen the amazing alteration that membership has brought to older people.

I became determined to be part of the nationally elected body - The Third Age Trust - and use my own professional communication skills to enable more and more third agers to be aware of one of the most exciting and successful national educational movements of our time.

Started in the UK in 1982, U3A now has over 140,000 members who share their knowledge and experience and develop their own capabilities by learning from each other.

No qualifications are needed to join and none are awarded. There is also no specific age requirement in order to become a member of this learning co-operative.

Peter Webb, chairman, Surrey Tax Action Group

By definition older people have been buffeted by life for longer, so they have gained experience and judgment along the way.

But there is still shock at the recent scale of council tax increases.

If you are dependent on a fixed pension rising by 3% a year, brutal and growing increases are intolerable.

On top of this one feels contempt for an incompetent and wasteful political system.

Either for stealth, but equally likely by accident because policy was uncosted, the transfer to local government of more state services without a matching increase in grants to compensate areas equally, has destabilised council tax calculations.

People try to connect tax to projects like the repair of local highways, but nothing adds up.

Instead, central and local government, and political parties, play the blame game.

I am a retired chartered accountant with settled views on many things, most of which I cannot now remember.

However I got out of my armchair when my council tax increased by 100% since 1997, only to find local politicians doing nothing but wringing their hands.

I now chair the Surrey Tax Action Group (STAG), using every means possible to tackle the county council on waste.

We also lead nationally on the "isitfair" statement to Professor Sir Michael Lyon's inquiry set up to prescribe more taxes.

I paint and play tennis for anger management!

We are quicker to rebel and perhaps now have more time, but we are finding all age groups are affected and subscribe to our cause.


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