COVID-19 has shown that we don't all age equally
The pandemic has been hard on everyone – but we have not all experienced it equally. In this end of year message, our Chief Executive emphasises the need for action.
Our Chief Executive, Dr Anna Dixon, reflects on what this year has taught us about the importance of tackling inequalities.
This year the world has been severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic with governments and citizens alike struggling to respond to the escalating crisis. The UK saw sweeping restrictions placed on people’s lives in order to contain the spread of the virus. Despite this we have seen many excess deaths and hospitals are again straining under the pressure of treating COVID patients. The lockdown has also caused economic hardship for many. But the health and financial impacts have not fallen equally.
Age matters but does not excuse ageism
The health impacts have particularly impacted those in later life. People at older ages are more likely to die and be adversely affected by the virus. Those aged 70 and over were advised initially to shield and visiting restrictions were placed on care homes in an attempt to protect their health. For those who have limited their social contact it has been a challenge to remain connected to friends and family and to access the support groups and services that are normally so important to our wellbeing. Digital exclusion, which was already an issue at older ages pre pandemic, has meant some people have been even more excluded during the lockdown – something we examined in our report ‘How has COVID-19 changed the landscape of digital inclusion?’. While many older people have been supported to get online for the first time, it has been critical that services have continued to be accessible by other means such as telephone.
We have also seen some of the worst examples of ageism. There was tendency to label all older people as ‘vulnerable’; just one of the negative stereotypes widely associated with old age as set out in our report, ‘Doddery but dear?’, which also revealed one in three people in the UK have experienced age prejudice or age discrimination. One particularly disturbing press article mentioned the economic benefits a ‘cull’ of elderly dependents would produce. We then saw similar sentiments shared on social media with people dismissing the virus as ‘only’ killing older people. The language we use can shape how we view ourselves and how we view others. It can reinforce negative attitudes, stoke intergenerational conflicts and lead to discrimination and policies that reinforce stereotypes. Our recent report, ‘An old age problem?’, has shown just how pervasive these negative views are across society.
Older workers, along with younger workers, have also been among those most likely to be made redundant or to lose their jobs as companies buckled under the economic impact of the lockdown. Our report, ‘A mid-life employment crisis’, found the number of people aged 50 and over seeking unemployment related benefits almost doubled during the lockdown. There will be a devastating financial impact for many older people as a result of the pandemic. One in four furloughed workers were aged 50 or older, so 2.7 million people in this age group have spent the best part of a year on 80% of their salary. This means that there will have been significantly less, or no, contributions made towards pensions and some people have been forced to draw down retirement savings. We know that those who fall out of the workforce at 50 are twice as likely as younger workers to become long-term unemployed, further worsening people’s financial situation.
Data from the State of Ageing in 2020 shows that people who live in the wealthiest areas have almost twice as many years of disability-free life ahead of them at age 65 as those in the poorest.
The poorest have been hardest hit
Poverty and deprivation have also put people more at risk, with the poorest people twice as likely to die from COVID-19. The risk presented was greater for those with an underlying health condition or being obese which are both linked to economic status. Data from the State of Ageing in 2020 shows that people who live in the wealthiest areas have almost twice as many years of disability-free life ahead of them at age 65 as those in the poorest. Obesity, in particular, is linked to wealth with almost half of men and women aged 50 and over in the lowest wealth quintile classed as obese compared to one-fifth in the highest. We must address the inequalities in disability-free life expectancy between rich and poor if we are to enable more people to live a full and independent later life.
The economic impact has also hit those in low-skilled and low-paid jobs harder. They also have few savings and are more likely to be living in private-rented accommodation, which is both less secure and more likely to be poor quality. Our ‘Homes, Health and COVID-19' report found that approximately 1.1 million households in the private-rented sector (25%) were living in homes that were classed as non-decent, meaning they are damaging to health, and potentially putting them at greater risk of poor outcomes from COVID-19.
The pandemic has exposed racial and ethnic inequalities
The pandemic shone a light on the already deep inequalities in our society experienced by people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. Our analysis found that people aged 50-70 from BAME backgrounds are more likely to be in the poorest fifth of the population in England compared with White people. It also shows that Black men and women in their 50s and 60s are more likely to be working – with White people in this age group three times more likely to have retired – suggesting people from these groups are more likely to be in low-paid jobs and/or to have less access to other sources of income, such as pension savings and assets. The data also shows that people approaching later life from BAME backgrounds are more likely to live in deprived neighbourhoods, with nearly a third of Black and a quarter of Asian people living in the most deprived areas, compared to just 16% of the White population.
The pandemic has highlighted how much further we still have to go to ensure people can age equally. At the moment how we age depends on our wealth and ethnicity. Urgent action is needed to change this. We need a focus on prevention, as well as support for those with long-term health conditions in the poorest communities. The government must recommit to narrowing the gap between the richest and the poorest and to ensuring people can enjoy five more healthy, independent years of life by 2035. Employers need to recognise the value of an age-diverse workforce and offer support and training for older workers. We need government to offer targeted, individualised employment support for this group, including opportunities for those with long careers in shut-down sectors to retrain. The pandemic has taught us a lot, we must make sure we learn from it and build back fairer.