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In context | State of Ageing in 2020

This chapter sets the scene for how people in the UK are ageing today and the impact that COVID-19 is having on health inequalities.

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The State of Ageing in 2020 is an online report with multiple chapters, capturing a snapshot of ageing today and considering our future prospects. Below, you can get further detail by clicking on the 'Analysis' buttons and you can hover over graphs to access the data.

For the latest statistics and commentary, we have since published The State of Ageing 2022.

The UK is experiencing a massive age shift, but we are not all experiencing ageing in the same way

Right now, just under one in every five people in the UK is aged 65 or older. In the year 2000, it was one in six. By 2048, it will be one in four.

UK population by five-year age-band (millions), 2000 to 2060 (projected)

The fact that many of us are living longer is a great achievement. Later life can be a time of good health, activity and enjoyment. But our experience of ageing is still shaped far too much by the accumulation of disadvantage that builds up over our lifetimes.

People in the wealthiest parts of the country can expect to live over five years longer than those in the poorest. The average 65-year-old man in the wealthiest parts of the country will enjoy good health until he is 79. In the poorest parts of the country, he can only expect to enjoy good health until he is 71.

COVID-19 has brought these health inequalities into sharp focus – and has the potential to deepen them further.  At the peak of the pandemic, people in the poorest areas were dying at twice the rate of the wealthiest. Not only that, but the economic impact of the lockdown, the health implications of being confined to our homes for long periods of time, and the differing access people have to support will all further compound health inequalities.

Our vision at the Centre for Ageing Better is to create a society where everyone enjoys later life, and that means addressing these inequalities in how we age. In 2018, we identified four priority areas where change needs to happen in mid-life (age 50-70), if we want to make a reality of our vision. As we are approaching later life, we need to be in fulfilling work, live in safe and accessible housing, have the support and opportunities we need to stay healthy for as long as possible, and live in communities which enable us to connect with one another.

Although we live in a time of great uncertainty, the pandemic has made clear just how important all these things are to improve our resilience as a country and a society.

This report sets out the State of Ageing today – in numbers. Using data from a variety of sources, it sets out a clear assessment of how people in England and the UK are ageing today.¹ It also looks at past trends to see how we got here and takes a look to the future, if we do not act to change the trajectory we are on. These numbers are, of course, only part of the picture but they pinpoint many of the key areas where change is needed.

Unless radical action is taken by government, business and others in society, millions of us risk missing out on enjoying our later lives.

Some parts of the country are experiencing a more rapid age shift than others

  • In 2020, there are only two local authorities in England where one in three people is aged 65 or older: West Somerset and North Norfolk. By 2040, there will be 47 local authorities with a similar age profile: 16 in the South West, and none in London. By that time, almost half (44%) the population of West Somerset is projected to be aged 65 or older. Three other local authorities are set to have over 40% of their population aged 65 or older: West Dorset in the South West, Rother (East Sussex) in the South East, and North Norfolk in the East of England.
  • London is the youngest part of the country, and still will be in 2040. But the capital will also see a huge age shift over the next 20 years: 18% of its population is set to be 65 or older in 2040, compared to 12% today.

These regional differences are one of key reasons why our response to ageing and inequalities in the coming decades must be place-based – taking into account local demographics, economies and community structures.

The vast majority of the population aged 65+ is White – but the proportion of older people from BAME backgrounds is set to grow

  • The most recent data we have on the ethnic make-up of the country is from the 2011 census. Overall, the older population is more likely to be White than the general population: 86% of the general population identified as White in 2011, compared to 95% of people age 65 or older.
  • But that will now have changed and is set to change further. As the chart above shows, in 2011 9% of people aged 50-64 were from a Black or Minority Ethnic background, as were 16% of people aged 30 to 49.

We know that racial inequalities are felt profoundly in later life. A third of the poorest people aged 50-70 and living on less than £150 a week come from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic background (BAME). Those from a BAME community in their 50s and 60s are half as likely as their White peers to be homeowners. We also know that racism and ageism intersect: a 2017 Anglia Ruskin study found that older Black men were less likely to be invited to interview than their older White or younger Black counterparts, and were more likely to receive offers for interview for lower-paid jobs.

This report draws out, where possible, how these racial inequalities manifest in our priority areas.  But the availability of data with a sufficient sample to draw out the experiences of ageing among people from different ethnic backgrounds is limited. Addressing this data gap must be a key step in addressing racism at a systemic, policy level.

Family structures are changing: more people are single or divorced, and living alone

  • The number of people in mid- and later life who live alone has risen over the last 20 years by 1.6 million, or 32% – most notably among those in mid-life, aged 45-64. This increase has been particularly stark among men.

    • The proportion of men aged 50-59 living alone ranges from 13% in the South East to 19% in the North East. For women aged 50-59, the proportion ranges from 10% in the East Midlands to 15% in the North East.
    • The region with the largest proportion of men aged 70 and over living alone is the North West where more than a quarter (27%) of men in this age group live alone.
    • Almost half of all women aged 70 and over in the North East (46%) and London (44%) live alone.
  • This reflects, in part, changes in marital structures. In 2018, 10% of people aged 50 and over were unmarried (although they may have a partner), and 13% divorced, compared with 6% and 9% respectively in 2002.
  • Divorce is more frequently occurring in later life:
  • Falling fertility rates also mean that a growing number of people will be entering their later life without children. Of those women who turn 50 this year, 17% had no children at 45, compared with 14% of women who turn 70. Nearly 50% of 30-year-old women have no children.

The proportion of people aged 50 or over who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual is smaller than among younger people, but it is growing (from 1.3% of those aged 50-64 in 2014 to 1.7% in 2018, according to ONS estimates) – and will grow more, as those younger generations age. A 2011 survey found that lesbian, gay and bisexual people over the age of 55 are more likely to be single, more likely to live alone, less likely to have children, and twice as likely to rely on external services for health, social care and support.

Data like this reminds us that ageing in the future will not necessarily look like ageing in the past. With more people likely to be living outside a more traditional family structure as they age, the need for other community and social infrastructure to support people in later life will be even more important.

There are a million more pensioners living in poverty than there were in 2014-15 – a worrying reversal after 15 years of progress

  • There has been a worrying increase in the proportion of pensioners in poverty over the last five years, reversing the longer-term trend. As of 2018-19, 11% (or 1.3 million) people of pension age (which at that time meant aged 65 and over) were living in relative poverty.  This represents a 2 percentage point increase from 2014-15, and a stalling in progress since 2016-17.
  • In ‘mid-life’ (ages 50-69) there are 2.7 million people living in poverty. Among those aged  50 or over, the highest rates of poverty are among people aged 60-65 (20%).
  • These figures are taken from the Social Metric Commission which defines poverty as a relative measure (having 54% less than the median), after taking into account a range of costs and needs such as housing costs and the costs associated with disability. This makes it the most comprehensive measure of poverty we have. The more traditional measure of poverty – below 60% of median income after housing costs – puts 1.9 million people of pension age (16%) in poverty, with a similar increase of three percentage points since 2014-15.

The story of pensioner poverty over the last 50 years is broadly positive: pensioners experienced by far the highest rates of poverty in the 1960s, and now experience the lowest. This has been driven by a range of factors, including: increasing levels of employment at later ages, increasing entitlements to the State Pension (including a recognition of years taken out of the workforce by women caring for children), the growth in the size of private pension pots, and the introduction of Pension Credit.

The factors putting this growth under threat are as yet not entirely clear. But this does remind us that poverty at later ages is not inevitable. Younger generations will face a very different context when they enter later life. Poverty rates will be a key metric to watch in the coming years, as an indicator of whether we really are improving later lives.

Wealth inequality grows with age

  • Average wealth rises with age: but so does the gap between the wealthiest and the least wealthy.
  • The people in the least wealthy tenth percentile who are aged 65 or over have 12 times more wealth on average (excluding pension costs) than the least wealthy aged 25 to 24, but 37 times less wealth than the wealthiest in their own age group.

The fact that average wealth rises with age is not surprising: over a lifetime, most people accumulate assets (most notably, a home), and many will receive inheritances. But this chart shows just how stark the gap is between those who are able to accumulate wealth, and those who are not. Between the ages of 25-34, the gap between the average person in the wealthiest and least wealthy 10% of people is just over £100,000. Between the ages of 55-64, the gap has reached more than £500,000. This illustrates the risk involved in targeting policies at all older people based on their average higher wealth. Such age-based policies will always risk penalising those who have struggled most throughout their lives.

Women in the wealthiest parts of the country are set to live 16 years longer in good health than those in the poorest

  • 65-year-old men and women in the least deprived parts of the country (the highest Index of Multiple Deprivation decile) can expect to live to be 86 and 88, respectively. In the most deprived parts of the country, it is 81 and 83.
  • The gap in disability-free life expectancy is even greater. The 65-year-old men and women in the least deprived areas can look forward to an average of 12 more years free of disability, compared to just six among the poorest. 
  • Looking at life expectancy among children born today, the gap becomes starker still. In the poorest parts of the country, a baby born female has a disability-free life expectancy of 51-16 years fewer than a girl born at that same time in the least deprived parts of the country.

There are many things driving this discrepancy, including poverty, education, the quality of the houses and communities we live in and the types of work we do, the access we have to physical activity and nutritious food, and the levels of stress we endure. There is more discussion of this in our ‘Health’ section.

The urgency of changing the underlying conditions which generate these inequalities has been laid bare by the COVID-19 crisis. We do not yet know the impact of the pandemic on our life expectancy. However, it seems likely that the increased mortality we have seen, both from COVID-19 itself and from other conditions that remained undiagnosed and untreated as a result of the pandemic, will lead to a reduction in life expectancy, especially in those subgroups of the population that were most affected by the pandemic   that is, older people and the most disadvantaged.

Three in every four people who died for COVID-19-related reasons have been age 75 or older

  • At the time of writing (November 2020), three-quarters of deaths involving COVID-19 have taken place among those who are aged 75 or older.
  • Among all age groups except the very oldest (where women outnumber men significantly in the population), the number of deaths has been highest among men.

In general, the older we get, the weaker our immune systems are, and the more likely we are to suffer from one or more health condition. The oldest people are therefore at greatest risk from COVID-19.

Within this, there are groups that have been particularly affected. As described above, people in the poorest areas have died at twice the rate of those in the richest. We also know that the risk of death among people from Black, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian and Mixed Ethnic backgrounds is higher than among White people. People in particular occupations – such as care workers and bus and taxi drivers – have also have higher death rates. Men have died at a higher rate from COVID-19 than women. All of this is driven by both structural and health inequalities, which are described in our later chapters.

Older people are also more likely to have cared for someone else inside their home during this crisis

  • 11% of people in their 60s, 17% of people in their 70s, and nearly one in five people aged 80 or over said they were supporting someone in their home during lockdown.
  • In spite of the ‘shielding’ advice to people aged 70 or over, the same survey found that one in three people aged 65 or older had provided support to someone who did not live in their home.

It is important to remember that older people have not just been passive sufferers during this pandemic: they have also been a key part of the informal social infrastructure mobilised to cope with it. There is more discussion of the role that people in mid- and later-life play in our communities in the ‘Communities’ section.

Women aged 45 to 64 are the most likely to be carers

  • Data on the number of carers is collected at the census: which means the best data available is now very out of date. But all the more up-to-date survey data shows that people aged around 45-64 are the most likely to have a caring responsibility. This data, from the GP patient survey, suggests that one in four people in this age group look after or support someone outside their home.
  • Across the age groups, women are more likely than men to report being carers. But this gender gap is particularly stark in mid-life. One in four women aged 45-54, and one in three women aged 55-64, report being carers – compared with 18% and 22% respectively among men.

Caring hugely – and increasingly – shapes the experiences of people in mid-life. Of carers aged 45 or over, 6% say they have given up work due to their caring responsibility, and 9% say their work has been adversely affected. Among sandwich carers (who care for both a dependent child and an older relative), 46% of women and 35% of men say they are unable to work as much as when they were not caring. Carers on average earn less, get less sleep, and report lower life satisfaction than non-carers. This will have knock-on effects for carers’ own health and wellbeing as they enter later life. Supporting carers is a critical part of ensuring we can all age well.

Life satisfaction remained highest among the oldest people under the first lockdown

  • In spite of the restrictions put in place, and the risks of COVID-19, life satisfaction under national lockdown was highest among older people. On average, people aged 60 or over ranked their life satisfaction between seven and eight out of ten.
  • Since then, life satisfaction has remained consistently higher among people in the 70 or over age group than those below that age: in the last week of September, the average life satisfaction score for people aged 70 or over was 7.4, compared with 6.7 for people aged 16 to 69.
  • At the same time, data from the ONS suggests that anxiety levels among older people have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. While anxiety levels usually tend to drop in the mid-60s, during lockdown there was no significant difference in the anxiety scores reported by different age groups.

This is consistent with the pattern seen in ‘normal’ times, when life satisfaction was observed to fall between the ages of 30 and 50, before climbing again after 55. It is perhaps surprising to see this pattern continue, given the risks posed to people aged 70 or over and the restrictions placed on them under lockdown – although it should be noted overall, people with a health condition which put them at specific risk in relation to COVID-19 have reported consistently lower life satisfaction.

This serves as a counterbalance to the gloom and doom pictures of ageing that often surround us. Later life has the potential to be a time of rich enjoyment and fulfilment.  But, as the data in this report reveals, there are still too many people who do not have access to these benefits – where the accumulation of disadvantages over a lifetime leads to a later life spent in financial insecurity, poor health, poor housing and social exclusion. On the current trajectory, these inequalities are set to deepen further for future generations.

Change is possible – there are practical actions included throughout this report which will make a real difference. But we must act now, to protect the state of ageing for future generations.


¹ The Centre for Ageing Better has a remit to focus on England – so in most cases, the data in this report also covers just England. However, in some places, the data is only available at a UK level – so some of our charts describe the whole of the UK. The chart title makes clear what area the data for each chart covers.

The State of Ageing 2020

Summary: The State of Ageing in 2020

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