By: Dr Lynne Corner, Newcastle University
This blog is one in a series of blogs on the Future of Ageing, published in the lead up to the ILC-UK Future of Ageing conference on the 24th November. To register to attend this conference, click here.
Now is the time for furthering the debate and action on what an ageing workforce will mean for Britain and how best to capitalise on the skills and experience of older people.
In 2008, the Government Office for Science published its “Foresight Report on Mental Capital through Life – Future Challenges”. This was an important report at the time, and remains a seminal piece of scientific insight into the reality of our ageing population.
The report highlighted the immense opportunities presented by an ageing population. It highlighted the fundamental importance of ‘through life’ approaches, improving flexibility in the work place and increasing productivity. It stressed the need to invest in skills and education across the life course, providing meaningful options and choices about extending working lives with greater financial options and long term planning. And it drew attention to social inequalities, the value of promoting mental health and wellbeing, preventing long term illness so people are fitter later through life and have increased healthy life expectancy.
Around the same time, VOICENorth (Valuing Our Intellectual Capital and Experience North) was established. This network of members of the public interested in contributing to solutions to demographic change is now a flourishing organisation, encapsulating the concepts and values of ‘productive ageing’ at the heart of the Foresight report. VOICENorth has been extremely successful in capturing the insights of older people, delivering continuous learning and work opportunities, and is a catalyst for delivering creative solutions to ageing, co-designed by a growing number of ‘evidence and innovation savvy citizens’.
A lot has happened since the Foresight report was published and VOICENorth established but some things haven’t changed: we still need to get better at harnessing the potential of older citizens, valuing their mental capital and ensuring people have choices in later life which benefit them as individuals and the wider economy.
The business case for this is clear. Some estimates suggest the over 50’s hold 80% of the UK’s wealth. But older people are not just a massive emerging market, they also represent an enormous talent pool of skilled and experienced workers which UK Plc desperately needs to increase productivity.
Some firms are already starting to recognise and respond to the potential of older workers, but much more needs to be done. Businesses that grasp this huge opportunity are likely to flourish. They will be the firms that harness the experience and ideas of older people to innovate and co-design technologies, products and services to access and meet this growing market. This is one of the reasons the UK Government is setting up the National Centre for Ageing Science and Innovation, based in Newcastle, helping to match ‘what’s needed with what’s possible’.
Of course, understanding what’s possible means pushing boundaries and, where necessary, setting new standards. In the new landscape cultural norms need to change – we have to ask ourselves some tough questions. What is productive ageing? What is work? What is care? What is our individual responsibility in planning for later life? And hat is the role of the State and supporting health and social care systems? How can working life be extended whilst balancing caring responsibilities? How can we best support training and reskilling through life? How can we deliver age-neutral infrastructure, all so critical to achieving meaningful ‘though life’ approaches and valuing our mental capital?
Ultimately, we need to find a way to ensure individuals have access to the right range of information and support to help them plan long term for their individual circumstances, build resilience and ensure choice of timely, viable options. New narratives on the massive opportunity of living longer are emerging in policy, but we need more honest and open debate for the public, on what this actually means for individual citizens and how rhetoric meets reality.
Dr Lynne Corner
VOICE North, Newcastle University