Tackling inequality a priority as older population becomes more diverse
New Census figures show that the older population is more diverse than ever and will continue on that trajectory over the next couple of decades.
Our Evidence Officer, Sarah Wilkinson, takes a look at the latest data from the 2021 Census, suggesting that gaps in health and wealth among older people may increase unless we tackle inequalities now.
Understanding the diversity of our older population is essential because inequality between different groups – whether those groups differ by ethnicity, sexual orientation or other characteristics – widens as people age.
New data from the 2021 Census shows that the older population in England is more diverse than ten years ago, though it is still not as diverse as the younger population. While the number of people aged 65 and older in the population as a whole has increased by 20% (to 10.4 million), the number of over 65s from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds has increased by 70% (to 698,000).
Moreover, the older population is set to become even more ethnically diverse in the years ahead. While the age profiles of most other ethnic communities – excluding those of the White Irish and Black Caribbean communities – tend to be younger than for the White British community, the median age of almost all these communities increased between 2011 and 2021. And the percentage of people aged 40-49 who identify as White British (67%) is lower than for 50-59 year olds (80%). This means that in ten years’ time this more ethnically diverse cohort of 40-49 years olds will be aged 50-59.
Data on gender identity and sexual orientation in England and Wales was collected in the 2021 Census for the first time. Currently, one in five people who identify as trans, and one in eight who identify as LGB+ are aged 55 or over. LGB+ includes people identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and other minority sexual orientations (for example, asexual). Data on equality characteristics should always be treated with some caution. Whilst the rates of over 55s who didn’t respond to the sexual orientation and gender identity Census questions were only slightly higher than for younger people, there is good reason to believe that older LGBT+ people in particular, who are likely to have experienced greater discrimination in their lives, would be over-represented among non-responders.The number of people aged 45-54 who identify as LGB+ or trans is higher than for the 55-64 age group. Again, this indicates that the LGBT+ population aged 50 plus is set to grow over the next ten years.
The increasing diversity of people aged 50 and over is to be celebrated. And Census analysis shows that communities are more ethnically diverse and less segregated than ever before. This provides opportunities for new intergenerational alliances based on shared experiences and concerns – whether that’s fuel poverty, the housing crisis or climate emergency.
Public policy needs to address inequalities in areas such as health, housing and work as early as possible in people’s lives so our prospects are more equal as we enter later life.
But disadvantage, and indeed advantage, accumulates through the life course, so that the gaps in wealth and health are largest amongst older people. Many of these gaps are closely associated with equality characteristics. For example, the health status of different ethnic groups begins to diverge from around 30 years old until the proportion of Bangladeshi women in their 50s who report poor health (31%) is even higher than that of White British women in their 80s (22%).
This presents challenges for policymakers. Public policy needs to address inequalities in areas such as health, housing and work as early as possible in people’s lives so our prospects are more equal as we enter later life. Addressing inequality is a priority in Ageing Better’s strategy as we strive to reduce gaps by improving outcomes for the least advantaged and create a society where everyone can live a good later life.
Finally, stereotypes of older people, whether as (invariably White) ‘frail grannies’ or ‘selfish Boomers’, of course have never been accurate. But with increasing diversity in our older population they are even more inaccurate and pernicious. A more realistic representation of diverse older people is one way to challenge the stereotypes.