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Last Updated: Sunday, 27 August 2006, 12:45 GMT 13:45 UK
A growing - and ageing - nation
By Stephen Dowling
BBC News

Shoppers on Oxford Street, London
There are more people in the UK than at any point in history
The UK population has broken through the 60 million barrier for the first time in history. And it may soon be breaking other barriers as well.

Like most other industrialised nations, babies born in the UK are far more likely to survive into adulthood than at any point in history. And those adults are likely to live much longer lives.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the UK's population rose 375,000 to 60.2 million - the biggest annual rise since 1962.

In the years to come, the population - aided by improvements to diet, living conditions, medical knowledge and low infant mortality rates - is likely to grow even older.

Ed Harding, an expert network manager at the International Longevity Centre, says the UK's growing - and ageing -population is in line with most Western European countries.

Rising life expectancy

Since the 1970s, the country has fallen below the minimum population replacement level of 2.2 children per woman.

"What is also going on is we have relatively high levels of migration - just like most places in the EU," Mr Harding says.

In 2005, 34% - 20m people - of the UK's population was over 50
In 2025 it will be 40% - a projected 25.5m people
In 2005 16% were over 65 - that is expected to rise to 21% in 2025, as many as 13.5m people
There are expected to be 4.5m people aged over 85 in 2025
There are expected to be 30,000 people aged over 100 by the year 2030
Source: International Longevity Centre (ILC)

The improvements to living conditions have meant the average life expectancy rose two years for every decade of the 20th Century, and now stands, according to the UN, at 76 years for men and 81 years for women.

"It is down to better schooling, better housing, working in much better conditions. We are much less reliant on manual labour or heavy industrial labouring. We have better regulations to control pollution," he says.

"We have better hospital treatment, and our doctors are better able to cope with what would have been very serious conditions in the past. We better understand diet and we are smoking less."

B&Q's oldest worker Sid Prior, 91, with colleague
Older people may be able to work longer if they wish

Mr Harding says the low birth rates were a common factor among rich industrialised countries - societies reached a certain level and birth rates began to fall.

He says people should not start calling for a return to the birth-rates of the past - when babies were far more likely to die at birth. Nor can the UK sustain the current system of four "active workers" to every retired person.

That means more older people for the country's dwindling taxpayers to support.

Flexible pensions

This means a change in the way people viewed growing has to happen, Mr Harding says.

"In 30 or 40 years, most of the people who are going to be alive are alive now. We need to look at how people live their lives. People need to think more about their own health a lot more."

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) says many companies are already beginning to look at how they can be more flexible when it comes to pensions.

We did a survey last year and found 51% of the companies surveyed favoured flexible retirement
Tom Moran, CBI senior policy advisor

Tom Moran, the CBI's senior policy adviser, told BBC News: "In the 1980s and 90s we saw a people offering early retirement - now the opposite is true. Companies now are more likely to want to keep experienced people."

He says it "makes business sense" for companies to be more flexible on their retirement policies - especially when it comes to keeping people with valuable skills.

"We know that will have positive effects on society and the economy. We will have older people feeling good about themselves, being proud of the fact they are contributing, and they will still be paying taxes.

"We did a survey last year and found 51% of the companies surveyed favoured flexible retirement," Mr Moran says.

He says the recent wave of migration from EU accession states - which according to recent figures swelled by more than 1.4 million people since May 2004 - is a short-term benefit because they are performing jobs the UK economy needed.

But using hard-working, skilled Polish builders should not divert Britain from dealing with its skills crisis, he says.

Bar chart showing UK's population by age and gender

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