By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine
The future is grey for the English countryside. With an ageing rural population, villages are going to have to depend on pensioner power.
The face of rural England is going to change rapidly in the next 20 years - but it isn't housing development, the natural landscape or farming that's going to be different.
It's the people. The age profile of the rural population is going to get older much more quickly than the rest of the country - trebling the number of those aged over 85 and creating swathes of the country where the over-50s are in a majority.
These figures are being presented at a seminar in York, the Ageing Society as a Driver of Rural Development, which is intended to provoke a debate about the major implications of this demographic shift.
It will examine what's causing this disproportionate ageing in the population. And it will ask where there is adequate public transport, housing and welfare services. And what can rural areas gain from its growing pool of retired and semi-retired inhabitants?
The research, carried out by Newcastle University's Centre for Rural Economy, shows that in the countryside the population of over-50s is going to increase by 47% over the next two decades.
Older people are able to give a helping hand in villages
This is being driven by a pattern of families moving from cities into rural areas, in search of a healthier, safer lifestyle and cheaper housing.
But when the children of these families reach adulthood, they move back to the cities for work, leaving behind their parents - who then become part of a growing number of rural pensioners.
Unlike in many European countries which face rural depopulation, in the English countryside there is both a migration of young adults to cities - and an influx of older people.
This shift in the age structure of rural areas coincides with the underlying ageing of the population, with improved life expectancy and relatively low birth rates, which will see a 30% increase in the over-50s by 2028, across the country as a whole.
There will be retirement hotspots, such as parts of Norfolk and Dorset, where three-fifths of the population will be middle aged or elderly.
"There is an inescapable trend here - but the countryside is in the vanguard of a demographic change that in time will affect the rest of the country," says Professor Neil Ward, director of the Centre for Rural Economy.
And, as this is going to happen whether we like it or not, he says we should be beginning to look for more positive ways of managing this funademental social change.
The lack of public transport in rural areas can isolate the elderly
"The dominant way of looking at this has been to see this as a problem - an increasing burden on the working population.
"But retirement is now more of a process than an event - and retiring can release time, energy and resources, which can be very positive for communities," he says.
Healthy and energetic pensioners can be the backbone of voluntary services, he says - which will become more important in terms of serving the needs of an older population.
Exemplifying this idea of active retirement is 67-year-old Mike Gladstone, who lives with his wife in Lanchester, County Durham. A former civil engineer, he works as a volunteer for a number of village organisations, including setting up a local bus service.
But this isn't just a case of pensioners helping out. The village now depends on the active engagement of its older population, says Mr Gladstone.
"It's very noticeable that 30 years ago there would have been many more younger people involved in organisations - now it's retired people," he says.
2028: AGEING COUNTRYSIDE
5.3m more over-60s
Three-fifths of population over-50 in Berwick-upon-Tweed, West Somerset, North Norfolk, East Lindsey, West Dorset and South Lakeland
47% increase in over-50s
Three times as many over-85s
Current rural average age, 42, urban average, 36
Source: Newcastle University
Whether it's time pressure on the young, or a lack of a sense of civic duty, he says that it's now the older people who keep the local community services running.
But this can literally be an uphill battle, as the bus service, which Mr Gladstone helped to set up, is threatened by funding cuts. Without this bus, elderly people would be unable to reach the shops and services of the village, he says.
And this highlights the practical problems that accompany an ageing rural community.
With poor public transport, people living in the countryside are "highly car dependent", says Professor Ward. And those too elderly to drive are at risk of becoming isolated and cut off from services.
A report to be published by the Joseph Rowntree Trust later this week is expected to say that elderly people can benefit from so-called "retirement villages", in which older people can retain their independence, but have easy access to health services and support.
An ageing population will require extra health services
"Policy makers need to focus not only on health and social services but examine all rural services which impact on the lives of older people including leisure, transport, crime and housing," says Age Concern's director general, Gordon Lishman.
There are also questions about what an ageing population will mean for the character and economy of villages, when pensioners become the dominant majority.
Professor Ward warns against any stereotypical generalisations. When pensioners are buying pop records and empty-nesters - couples whose children have flown the nest - can have considerable disposable income, it remains to be seen what kind of shops and services the "grey pound" will generate, he says.
And the seminar will debate issues such as whether rural housing is adequate for an older population, how services could be adapted for a less mobile population - and whether migrant workers could be settled in the countryside to tackle staff shortages.
Another retired Lanchester resident, 69-year-old Arthur Maughan, who chairs the community association, has no time for hand-wringing over an ageing population. "It's not a problem, just a fact of life," he says.
Harnessing the energy of older people has meant that the community association can offer education classes, computer facilities and an exercise centre. The latest recruit for the exercise classes is aged 84, he says.
Pensioners are doing it for themselves.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
I live in a village of about 1,200 people in West Dorset where many of the residents are retired and or over 65. Two years ago a First Responder Team was formed to support the ambulance cover in our rural area. Our team numbers about 35, and over half of us are over 60, with some over 70. There is a lot of studying to do, and keen pride to do well to care for our community. At first there was some speculation about what we could achieve, but now after many call outs, I think we are respected for our professionalism and appreciated for what we contribute to support rural life. Also I believe that doing such a worthwhile voluntary job is stimulating and rewarding.
Peter Slimon, Broadwindsor
Perhaps, in the light of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, we in the countryside should call for devolution from metropolitan, urban and city areas? Freeing us from the yolk of slick, ignorant, and prejudiced urbanites would allow country folk, with common sense, to encourage a brighter future in their own communities.
Karl Beattie, Northumberland, UK
Our image of what it means to be a particular age always lags a generation behind. Today's elderly were young during WW2 - but the elderly of 20 years' time will be the young of the 1960s. No doubt they will rewrite the script for old age as they have done for all the other life stages they have passed through. Me and my friends [young in the 1970s-90s] expect an internet-enabled globally connected old age where we can still pretend to be 16 years old in chatrooms!
Steve Collins, London England
I live in a small village on the other side of the river from the town of Fowey, Cornwall - it has most of the things that are needed when one retire - but the only problem is the lack of public transport to take me anywhere else in Cornwall and the fact that to get to Fowey one has to walk up/down a 1:3 hill and catch a ferry, somewhat tricky & almost impossibly difficult for wobbly legs !!
Gay Richardson, Polruan by Fowe, Cornwall
Many stories lately about ageing populations, pensions etc and today 'ageing rural populations. What is consistently evident is that news reporters have not joined the 21st Century in terms of the use of traditional people descriptors. For at least 10 years it has not been considered good practice to refer to older adults as "the elderly" and referring to them as "pensioners" is definitely not on! In the article above the passage "there is both a migration of young adults to cities" appears. It therefore follows that their ageing counterparts should be referred to as either 'older adults' or 'older people'. David M Lawson
David Lawson, Sheffield/UK
Have you ever thought why the older generations are staying and moving into rural areas? Because it offers a better quality of life away from masses of people, crime and the increasing mixed communities (which are making people nervous).
Despite the lack of services it is still our England and we are able to contribute and help one another.
Bus services need not only to be maintained but also increased. Another vital service is sending out the weekly or fortnightly library vans which help keep the older and less mobile members of a village in touch with life at large. Both of these services nearly got scuppered through budget restrictions in the Northamptonshire village where my Mum, who is now in her 80s, has lived since 1953. Fortunately the younger members of the village petitioned to have the services maintained. They are - but for how long?
At the age of 70 I am still active in the community and work as consulting Civil Engineer when required. A lot of people have made the sea and land change from the cities for a better life style. But you need to be near the major centres for health requirements which are not available in the country. I feel that the older generation can give back to the community especially young children.
Brian Pearson, Asquith Sydney Australia
Several small rural towns have cottage hospitals which must be near perfect to address the needs of an aging population and provide a one stop shop yet they are being shut down. This is the case at Coldstream close to where I live resulting in long journeys on poor bus services.
John Urwin, Chirnside
It was really noticeable when I visited Australia that so many of the people we saw were retired working voluntarily in the tourist sector. They told us everyone is encouraged to do voluntary work after retirement in Australia.
How frustrating to hear stories like this! I grew up in a rural village in Devon. Having got married I was forced to move away due to lack of affordable housing. Our village seems to have been bought up by holidaying Londoners, pushing the prices up to such an extent that the only way anybody who was born there could afford a house is through inheritance. Not only that, but there is a distinct lack of jobs, even in Exeter. If I could, I'd return to my village at the drop of a hat, as I am sure many of my peers would. Maybe when we are old the aging rural population would have moved on and we'll have our own opportunities to return to the places we love.
At last a positive spin on this subject! Personally, I was beginning to tire of the attempts to make my generation feel guilty about being baby-boomers. It seems at times as if my wife and I were also in trouble for only having two children. We thought we were acting responsibly by not over-burdening the world's already huge population, but the inference now is that we should have produced a veritable tribe of offspring to be able to pay enough taxes to support us in old age. Although my comments are only tongue-in-cheek, a quick read of the tabloids on this subject would be enough to make people like me, close to retirement, feel that it was all our own fault that our parents were lucky enough to survive the Second World War.
Peter Terry, Thames Ditton/England
I live in a small village in South Herefordshire, we have no shop and daily buses to Ross on Wye and Hereford. The bus company has just said they are thinking about cutting most of the bus services. Last week all the pensioners got free travel passes, what is the point of having them when there is nothing to use them on, surely it would be better to use some of the government money to keep the local services running.
Older people have a valuable contribution to make in the voluntary sector - thus lowering the cost of public services and saving cash to spend on pensions and, hopefully not, medical care.
At 51 I do not consider myself a Silver Fox. More a bouncy Tigger!!!
Lesley Coutts, Bedford
"Literally be an uphill battle". You mean that we are drafting pensioners into military service and making them fight against opposition on the higher ground? This certainly is cause for concern.
Andrew Gordon, London
For heaven's sake, build more retirement villages, near or in the grounds of hospitals but near supermarkets, GPs and district nurses, with a warden checking each person once a day, with carers to clean and cook if need be, and keep our old folk out of so-called care homes but in the real world - it would be cheaper in the long run and give them independence till they died. Which we all want.
Katy Charles, London/England
This concentration of greys in rural areas is wonderful news for pensioners. It means for the first time a political party dedicated to pensioners interests can have substantial seats in parliament and can wring the best economic policies for pensioners. Anyone interested in starting the process going?. I promise that in 10 years' time, we will be a force to reckon with.
Eli Timan, London, UK
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