This week’s Spending Review must get it right for later life
COVID-19 has exacerbated the stark health inequalities in Britain and negatively impacted older workers. The government must take action to address these issues.
In this blog, Dr Carole Easton OBE, Ageing Better's Chief Executive, explains why this week’s Spending Review and Budget must be used to help us all make the most of our later lives.
Over the past eighteen months, the COVID pandemic has exposed serious weaknesses in the UK’s resilience. The crisis laid bare the yawning gaps between rich and poor, and the fatal consequences of those disparities. People of all ages have been hit hard by the economic consequences of the crisis but young and older people have been particularly impacted financially.
As well as creating opportunities for young people, if our economy is to be rebuilt there also needs to be a focus on later life. We need to ensure that everyone is able to spend more years in good health, and maximise the economic potential of the older workforce.
This week’s Spending Review and Budget provides a huge opportunity to take this course. The chancellor must not miss this chance to take a strategic approach to ageing, and help us all make the most of our later lives.
Those approaching later life, aged 50-70, already make up around a quarter of the population in England – over 14 million people. Getting it right for this group will yield huge economic and fiscal benefits for the future and can ensure that our demographic shift is an opportunity for growth and not an increasing cost for the Treasury.
For this to happen, we need to see increased government funding to local authorities, so that they can fulfil their public health duties alongside meeting immediate COVID-19 and social care pressures. In addition, we need a clear cross-government strategy on ageing to ensure that coordinated action is taking place across government.
We also need to see commitment from the government in a range of areas:
Make good on the manifesto commitment to extend healthy life expectancy and tackle inequalities
COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the stark health inequalities in Britain, with death rates for people from deprived areas in the UK twice as high as those in richer areas. Tackling these disparities must be a priority in the months and years ahead. Addressing health inequalities will also create a more resilient society in the future and enable more people to be active economically and contribute to society.
The government has a manifesto commitment to extend healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035. This will not be achieved without concerted action to reverse the depressing trends in life expectancy (which is decreasing) and the amount of time spent living with disability in later life (which is increasing).
A commitment to prevention has never been more important, both for the nation and for economic growth. Public health initiatives often focus on children; however, targeting interventions at people aged 50-70 will have a huge impact on life expectancy and reducing health inequalities.
The Chancellor should invest in preventing obesity as part of the pandemic recovery and work to support people aged 50-70 to engage with physical activity. However there are other crucial areas in which he can invest to make a significant difference to the health and wellbeing of older people and the economy – areas that may not occur to readily to him or others.
Repairing our housing stock, among the oldest and poorest quality in Western Europe
COVID has shown the impact our homes have on our health. Poor-quality housing has a profound impact on health. In England, around one in five excess deaths during winter are attributed to cold housing, and poor housing costs the NHS £1.4 billion a year.
With 80% of the homes that people will be living in by 2050 already built, the condition of mainstream housing is absolutely critical in determining the quality of life for people of all ages, and particularly for people in later life with health and mobility problems who spend the majority of their time at home.
Small adjustments to homes can also prevent falls and other accidents – incidents which can prevent older people from working and create a huge burden on the NHS.
The Spending Review should commit to significant long-term investment in energy efficiency measures and home improvements. These should include funding a local network of delivery organisations with the flexibility to deliver a range of home improvement, adaptation and retrofit services.
Preventing older workers from falling out of the labour market for good
An ageing population means that keeping people in work for as long as they want and are able to is an increasingly important issue for the country as a whole. Indeed, in 2019, around 10 million or 61% of 50-69 year olds were in paid work, meaning that this age group comprises almost a third (31%) of the workforce in the UK, up from just 21% in 1992. But the pandemic risks undoing the previous progress made, and pushing many over 50s into long term unemployment.
One of the worrying consequences of the pandemic has been the impact on older workers. We are facing a ‘u-shaped’ employment crisis, with the oldest and youngest workers the hardest hit. The number of over 50s in work has declined by 181,000 since the start of the pandemic – a big drop after decades of growth in the employment rate among older workers.
We need to see support for older workers to return to work with tailored programmes for over 50s, and continued progress on measures to support flexible and remote working and support for carers.
The last eighteen months have been incredibly challenging for us all, and all efforts now must be pointed towards a recovery that improves the nation’s resilience and tackles the inequalities laid bare by the pandemic. A focus on improving health at all ages and supporting older workers is key.