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The Ageing Population Fallacy

April 13, 2012

If enough people repeat an opinion often enough, it mutates into a credible theory. If enough people continue to endorse the theory, it becomes an axiom. And so, our brains go lazy and dull and we cease to question the assumptions and logic behind it.

We have an ageing population. This is a problem. Everyone knows this. No need to delve deeper. But what if I were to tell you that a very simple shift in perspective can flip the issue on its head?

I was reading an article in the Telegraph yesterday. It is neither the first, nor will it be the last, of its kind. I did, however, find it a perfect encapsulation of all the facile thinking around this subject. “The problem with ageing populations is that they are expensive”, Knowles muses. By calling it the “ageing population” we dehumanise the people involved. We are no longer talking about our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, but about some mysterious, esoteric, demographic kink.

More importantly – “they are expensive” for whom? All the rhetoric which relegates the elderly to the general category of “burden on society” is predicated on the idea that the generation working right now, must pay for those who are retired right now. But is that the most logical or constructive way to look at it? I put it to you, that it is a fallacy from which all sorts of erroneous conclusions may flow.

What if we looked at each individual as working for a period of their life in order to provide for their own retirement? Pensioners do not spring forth, like Harryhausen dynamation creations from sowed dragon’s teeth, already 65 and a drain on the system. The overwhelming majority are people who have worked most of their lives. Suddenly, the “ageing population problem” acquires a different hue and the questions which must be asked are distinctly uncomfortable.

There are adjustments which need to be made to the retirement age as people live longer. Adjustments to be made to what we consider a living wage, as it becomes clear that it is not enough to say that it is the minimum necessary to sustain one this month – it needs to include an element which one can put aside. Strides to be made towards full education and full employment. Adjustments to be made to what both employees and employers consider adequate pension provision. Adjustments to the taxation of those who profit disproportionally from that work. Adjustments to an employer’s national insurance contributions so that the state can provide for the health of its employees once they retire. Expensive, uncomfortable, unpopular, but totally necessary, logical and fair adjustments.

And you may note, from the above list, that these are precisely the adjustments for which the union movement has always fought. It is not a coincidence. For three decades politicians have brought collective workers’ bargaining to its knees.  Releasing employers from all responsibility to those who have given them their work. It is precisely the fruition of this policy that we now call “the ageing population problem”.

And this has become a shorthand to justify all sorts of wicked changes, cruelty and unfairness. It has replaced the cries of “efficiency” of the Thatcher/Reagan era (because, by now, everyone can see that private monopolies are just as inefficient as state ones, only they screw you a little extra to make profit). The new mantra has become: “We have no choice. Our ageing population necessitates this.”

I am quite convinced that if scientists informed the Government that an extinction-event asteroid were headed for London and due to impact in a week, the response would be to privatise Observatories, give a tax break to astronauts and blame the whole thing on the “ageing population”. It has become a lewd political nervous tic.

Look at these charts showing the population numbers and distribution in the UK. Play with the sliders. The increases in population and the proportion of over-64s are exponential but, on the whole, smooth and entirely predictable. Look at the equivalent charts on life expectancy. There has been no “market shock”. There has been nothing we could not have foreseen and planned for. There has been chronic mismanagement by a succession of cowardly governments who prefer to kick difficult decisions into the long grass.

And by doing so, the decisions become more painful; more contentious. A level of adjustment is required (but a level of trust engendered) if you say to a 20-year-old in 1980: “We predict you will live to about 85. This means you will have to work until you’re 70 and put aside x amount each month.” If, on the other hand, you wait until 2010 and tell the same thing to a 50-year-old, you will have a fight on your hands – and rightly so.

All the while, a tiny slice of the construct we laughingly call The Big Society continues to accumulate an obscene amount – and I define obscene as more than anyone could possibly need. The last HMRC study on the subject in 2005 (and all indicators point to inequalities intensifying since then) shows that 5% of the UK population holds 40% of the UK’s wealth. The bottom 75% of the population hold less than 25% of the wealth. In the States it is even worse. If we want to address the “ageing population problem” that is the only place to start.

And this is the vital point. If we continue to perceive the issue as an inherited, unforeseen and surprising one – if we continue to look at our parents, grandparents and uncles as a burden which we must subsidise – we will always be retroactive, ineffective and cruel. We will never make the necessary adjustments proactively. Unless we start fighting on the issues of inequality at the heart of the matter, we will be facing the next “ageing population problem” in ten years’ time and the next one and the one after that, until the only “rational” course of action becomes a Logan’s Run.

You see, looked at in this way, there is no “ageing population problem”. There is not one working generation paying for the increasingly expensive retirement of the last. There is no ageing population. There is just population. A series of individual lives, from cradle to grave. We must urgently start asking the question: “How can it be that, after a lifetime of work, an individual has found it impossible to be in a position to sustain themselves in comfort and dignity in their old age?” Then we might get somewhere.

28 Comments leave one →
  1. April 13, 2012 8:00 pm

    Thank you for this.

    I am one of those inconvenient people who are aging and becoming a burden on society. I have worked since leaving university. I have paid tax and National Insurance, and occupational pensions when they were available in the expectation that these would support me in my old age. I have also saved in bonds, ISAs & other forms of investment which seems to be reducing in value rather than increasing. The one thing I could have done which would have given me a much better nest egg (I suspect) was to have bought shares in the utility companies when they were privatised. I didn’t do that because I thought it was wrong to privatise them in the first place (the perils of being idealistic).

    I am now only going to be able to retire at 65 instead of 60 as I expected, as a teacher I was going to have to pay increased contributions for less return. I will not get any of the other benefits pensioners receive (bus pass etc) until I’m 65. I suppose this is because I am expected to work until then, assuming I can find another job after leaving teaching because I could no longer cope with either the pressure or the emphasis on qualifications (many of them pointless) rather than on education (or even students). So far I am living off diminishing savings while trying to work out who will employ an ageing teacher to do something other than teach.

    I do resent (a tiny little bit) being blamed for having a better youth than young people now are experiencing. I enjoyed my youth & my free university education. I think I have put it to good use, but without accumulating a fortune. If it’s all the same though, I would rather not be forced into a miserable old age

  2. Pete permalink
    April 13, 2012 8:20 pm

    From reading the Weekly Telegraph I would assume that MP,s with their gold plated pension will not be a drain on society..and if memory serves me they do tend to live for quite a while. Is it correct that they only have to work ( or serve depends how you look at it))for 2 terms of parliament to qualify for a pension..10 years is that isn,t it..nice work if it is so. I might even be persuaded to come back to the old country and give it a bash myself for that..

  3. April 13, 2012 8:58 pm

    Well written and to the point. Today’s pensioners are the victims of bad management and worse investments. They have paid their dues and the majority still do. Their nest egg has been squandered.

  4. April 13, 2012 10:55 pm

    I completely agree that there needn’t have been an ‘ageing population problem’. Unfortunately because we refused to make provisions there is going to be a time lapse and therefore we will have to make serious adjustments and provisions right now, which is unlikely not to be fought over by those with more *ideology than sense.

    *I really just mean Tories…

  5. defytheeconomy permalink
    April 14, 2012 12:46 am

    Reblogged this on defytheeconomy and commented:
    Ageing population is not a future problem. It’s now, And we have a social care crisis. And a structure of the labour market crisis and have treated the race to the bottom for pensions as easy prey for years. This is happening, even if all our political parties currently pretend it isn’t. This is why I won’t be mourning the NHS. We need it. Age is redefining. My ex is 56, and is dad to a 5 year old. Not the oldest dad we know of a child with a similar age. Whole world redefined while the left and right were arguing about socially conservative cartoon trolling. It’s the economy. It’s linked to everything, cos that’s what it is.

  6. April 14, 2012 6:44 am

    Excellently put.

  7. April 14, 2012 7:21 am

    Bravo, Alex! Hooray for objective, clear-thinking common sense, and you’ve got more of it than all the forces of influence in this country – and that especially includes the damned cabinet. If we cannot tackle these challenges collectively and objectively, then there is no hope for the human race.

  8. April 14, 2012 7:52 am

    Reblogged this on Dawn Willis sharing the News & Views of the Mentally Wealthy and commented:
    . We must urgently start asking the question: “How can it be that, after a lifetime of work, an individual has found it impossible to be in a position to sustain themselves in comfort and dignity in their old age?”

    Must read.

  9. Tyler permalink
    April 14, 2012 10:22 am

    Well written thank you for good info with rational arguments. what I’ve noticed is this gov is of the divide and conquer variety so they try to set one sector of society against the rest. Weather its benefit claimants, public sector workers or the ageing population as a society we need to remember we are ALL members of society and work together for ALL our common good. we need to look for our cominality not our differences. Thanks for your article yes we are in it together lets get on with it !!

  10. April 14, 2012 3:09 pm

    As usual a very intelligent and well-written piece. There is so much in there that I may need to print it off and make notes with a view to getting back to you on some of the issues – for example you mention Living Wage, something with the Equality Trust has been working hard for employers and governments to adopt. The “there is no money” argument never makes sense to me, while it is clear that there are adequate resources for all, but the distribution and responsible use of those resources is what is at fault. My personal example in terms of the elderly is my 88 years old step-mother who lives independently, has worked all her life (only now giving up taking in lodgers and B&B customers), pays TAX on her pensions, etc …. Where and how could she be described as being a burden???

    Finally – I do believe in people power and wonder if all those who post comments, or are generally of like mind don’t pull together and spell this out to everyone – maybe that is naive, but I think sometimes there is an apathy or lack of belief that common sense and true social responsibility, as well as fairness can actually work. What do you all think?

  11. April 14, 2012 3:14 pm

    The problem is that, at the bottom end of the wage scale there is just no way anyone can save for anything much… and now that people are going to have to pay £9,000 a year for university, even those who make this level will be encumbered by their huge education loans and… unless something dire happens to the housing market…massive mortgages.

    The trouble with leaving these things in the hands of the Eton, Winchester, Rugby, Oxbridge lot is that they simply do not understand the problems that ordinary people are likely to encounter because daddy can’t simply pay everything off.

    But, as you say, why did no one see this coming? People don’t suddenly become 65!

  12. Kay Fabe permalink
    April 14, 2012 4:55 pm

    “By calling it the “ageing population” we dehumanise the people involved. We are no longer talking about our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, but about some mysterious, esoteric, demographic kink.” Quite, and that’s the point of the article and others like it. This technique has recently been deployed to great effect against the disabled and now it’s being turned on the Olds. Soon, no doubt, we’ll be reading that it’s perectly reasonable to deny the Olds any healthcare they may need, this on entirely spurious grounds. I’ve given up reading the papers myself, for reasons I hope are obvious.

  13. April 14, 2012 5:11 pm

    Most things make sense except politics and those that practice its black arts.

    Can society afford the establishments economic eugenics?

  14. April 15, 2012 9:29 am

    .Thank you Alex for constantly articulating the things I think of but am unable to express. Thank you on behalf of all my baby boomer contemporaries and their forbears, who worked really hard for low incomes, safe in the knowledge that at least public sector pensions would “make it worth while” We constantly posed the ‘who will care for the carers” question, but I don’t believe we expected to be vilified as a resource drain or denied access to effective care. I stayed in the UK because of the benefits of pension and health care. I should have gone abroad where I would have been paid twice as much for the same job.

  15. April 15, 2012 5:24 pm

    Yes, everyone knew this was coming, and yes previous governments have been cowardly in not facing up to the problem earlier, but this does not point us towards a solution.

    As for your key contention – that people should save for their own future – this seems to ignore the essence of the problem: once you have started the system off in one mode, the “current workers pay for current pensioners” mode (as was the case in the UK), it is very hard to switch to a different mode without effectively double charging a large cohort of the population – once for current pensioners, and again on their own retirement. I don’t see anything in the above that offers a solution to this.

    The fact is there is a fundamental problem: a smaller and smaller proportion of the population are working, and this working population needs to support (through pensions, through healthcare, through every public service) those that are not working – what, beyond increasing the age of retirement (which is already being done) – are you proposing as a solution?

    • April 15, 2012 5:58 pm

      I have proposed a solution. To address the matter proactively and equitably, rather than retroactively and spitefully. And if you are telling me that once we have fallen behind it is impossible to address, I would point out that we somehow manage to find money for wars when they pop up unexpectedly, but soul-destroyingly regularly.

      In your final paragraph you return to that same jejune misconception that “a smaller and smaller proportion of the population are working”. Smaller than what? The proportion of population of working age at any given point is de facto larger than the proportion of that same generation which will retire, because people die at any age. It’s not a difficult equation.

      The only proportions which are truly out of balance are: (a) the massive proportion of people being bled through their lives, so that (b) a tiny proportion can bequeath an ever-increasing legacy of cash and assets to their progeny.

      • April 16, 2012 11:25 am

        Well said. I really fear for the older generation if this kind of rhetoric continues to grow in popularity.

        The problem it seems to me is greed, and the way it has been legitimised by Thatcher’s and subsequent governments. When I left Oxford (state-funded Tris, we didn’t all go to Eton..) it never occured to me that I should try to earn more than I needed to live on, in spite of Maggie’s injunction to get on that gravy train. Like many of my friends I have worked in the voluntary sector, campaigning, advocacy, enabling, and in the arts doing crazy, exciting, beautiful, creative artistic things that enlighten and improve lives as well as entertaining people. We didn’t always earn enough to save, and in good times we gave away what we could do without.

        There is enough money in this country to provide for everyone if only we can get our heads around the idea that we might share it around. If we can work and pay tax, or if we can’t and need extra support there is still enough for everyone. The problem is that there will never be enough if some people insist on hoarding away obscene amounts and living profligate and self- indulgent lives, and if we continue to look up to them. They are the real drain on society.

  16. April 16, 2012 12:15 pm

    Here, here, well said, Clear Voice! There IS enough money to go around. I know because, as a newly retired member of the ‘ageing population’ I have personally discovered that enforced domestic economies, not least caused by the appalling performance of private pensions, whilst hard at first after years of ‘plenty’, is actually quite chastening, but so gratifying when you find out that you CAN live on less. Almost everyone living in the UK can do so as well. Then and only then can you begin to realise that life is good without the constant edgy, stressful ambition for more, for me… for what? The culture that was spawned during and evolved from the Thatcher ‘YUPPy’ era has developed into an attitude that is more highly developed in America, where success appears only to be measured in terms your financial assets! Anyone who doesn’t conform to this ‘success’ standard is a waster and a n’er-do-well. This is the attitude of a lost generation; a generation of people who have forgotten how to live in any other way than by the size of their wallets. I grieve for them, truly.

  17. Emma permalink
    April 18, 2012 6:45 pm

    Thanks for this . Finally an intelligent article. I’m in my thirties but lots of my friends are in their seventies and eighties. Contrary to tabloid nonsense most either work or volunteer and all are decent folk. No burden at all.

  18. April 20, 2012 1:30 am

    Reblogged this on The Re-blog Blog.

  19. silvereditor permalink
    April 24, 2012 5:14 pm

    I found this an intelligent commentary on a problem that has concerned me for a long time. As a member of “the ageing population” I am unconcerned about the label that is placed on me. If it helps people to identify the particular social grouping to which I belong then so be it.
    However, as one of the baby boomers I did not consider myself overly insightful to have spotted, some years, ago that we were going to have a problem for which there appeared to be little planning. At the end of their careers any over- represented group in society was going to be an issue, if only because of the loss of the skills and knowledge it would represent in the workforce. I fear the loss to teaching of the baby boomers has yet to be fully felt for example.

    The more problematic issue of how to sustain the reasonable living standards of the current retired and about to retire population has only recently been brought into stark focus. Clearly, many will find they cannot enjoy the stress free life they hoped for and deserve later in life and many are worried about how they will manage. The sudden change in company pension schemes and the changes to the state pension are necessary if we are to avoid catastrophic collapse and yet better planning would have provided more incremental and acceptable adjustments.
    I agree with your basic premise that the population at large must carry the responsibility for those that are moving into the non-working phase of their life in the same way that we do at the other end of the spectrum. The measure of a civilised society is the way it protects and looks after its most vulnerable members no matter what age.
    I like your blog and would ask that your readers also think about blogging on current issues on

  20. Dr. Nick Bedford permalink
    May 3, 2012 12:31 pm

    It is really difficult to stomach your final question ” How can it be that after a life time of work, an individual has found it impossible to sustain themselves in comfort and dignity in their old age” the implication being that the State shrugs off any responsibility towards older folk, throwing them into their own accumulated resources.

    What a ridiculous position: all volunteers, careers, house husbands, and non-paid workers have just as much right to look forward optimistically to a comfortable pension as those who work in paid employment. Or are you suggesting that society has no interest in the third sector? What about the vunerable? Disabled? Mentally ill or depressed?

    Everyone must work to eat is a despicable position.
    Equally despicable is that everyone must work to have a comfortable old age.

    I want to living in a caring society where, through taxation, the State generously provides a pension and health care for those in their twilight years, and those who are vunerable. As a doctor, maybe this is more obvious.

    • May 3, 2012 12:39 pm

      I appreciate your comment, but that is not what I said at all. The point is that even the majority of people who pay into pension schemes end up in poverty. Hence the system needs changing so that there is adequate provision for all. On my view on the other groups that you mention, I invite you to read this:

      • Dr. Nick Bedford permalink
        May 3, 2012 1:18 pm

        I appreciate a v swift reply, and understand that’s not what you meant to say – by all means, let’s change the system for those in work. We can all agree on that. To be honest, that’s the easy bit, conceptually.

        What about the rest of our population? A large minority?
        How will *that change* mean there is ‘adequate provision for all’ ?

        We will still need a State the generously provides for those in need. This is a measure of our humanity, as you yourself write.

      • Kay Fabe permalink
        May 3, 2012 3:33 pm

        Money could be created by the central banks (or a network of central banks) and pumped directly into the economy for productive purposes.If properly used and proportionately used, there’d be no inflation. Something similar was routinely done up till Maastricht which forbade precisely that, which is why we’ve only recently had these enormous debt problems. The money supply now is controlled by the private banks, who themselves create money into the economy under the guise of loaning it, and at vast interest rates too. We are stiched up like kippers by the financial community hand in hand with many of our politicians. That state of affairs needs to end.

  21. May 19, 2012 11:12 pm

    There seems to be an imbalance in the way contemporary concerns of society regard the well-being of the old compared with the young. There is always plentiful cash thrown at children – some more has been suggested the other day with some blethering claptrap about “parenting classes” (excuse me while I puke) – and this money seems to be coming more and more from that which ought to go to the elderly.

    There seems even to be a distasteful undercurrent in some of the recent crop of light entertainment shows where it is supposed to be “funny” for young people to cast scorn and derision upon the elderly, who are universally stereotyped as ugly, smelly and mad. It may be standard fare for intellectually lightweight comedy, but it’s insidious and potentially societally dangerous.

    And every so often there are the occasional spiteful letters printed by inhumanly fascistic young people who appear sincerely to believe that anybody over the age of, say, sixty, should be denied any of the benefits of a civilised life *precisely because* they are ugly, smelly and mad, and (worst of all) *don’t wear the right clothes*.

    Tough times ahead, folks, there are some nasty brutal children around – and many of them are running the government.

    • May 20, 2012 10:54 am

      Thank you, ‘donotwash’, for your attempt to redress the imbalance; as a sixty-something year old I appreciate your support for the ageing ones. The young will always be young (inexperienced and narrower-minded), but sociopaths exist in all walks of life and at all ages, so, whilst we should be aware of ‘brutal children’ running the country, we should also be aware about the damage that can be done by intellectual educationalists. How in God’s name are ‘Parenting Classes’ actually going to work! By the time they’ve had a liberal sprinkling of bureaucracy and political correctness thrown into the mix, they will be worthless; and, anyway, it is the ‘older ones’ who have to take responsibility for their own parenting, given that any help would be better directed, through social services, at those who really need it. I would say to the guardian of any children: there is only one authority on bringing up your own unique little bundles of joy that you call your children, and that is you, their parents!

      So I’m sure we’d all appreciate a parents evening at No.10 Downing Street, where the children’s parents are allowed to receive reports and comment on the performance and behaviour of their own.

  22. rentersfootthebillMombers permalink
    August 9, 2013 12:38 pm

    “Expensive, uncomfortable, unpopular, but totally necessary, logical and fair adjustments.”
    There you have it. The grey vote is VERY powerful and no politician is going to have the balls to stand up and pass the hat around and ask the retired to shoulder some of the soaring cost of their retirement. The burden will be passed on to the working age population via taxes on labour and capital, which will result in lower employment and business output, making the problem worse. Unless we move to a system where everyone matches their retirement liability with a pot of assets, it will be necessary to either have a high birth rate or immigration to maintain standards of living.

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