The Grey Tsunami

How to Reap a Healthy Longevity Dividend

In January the World Economic Forum at Davos released a major report, “Global Population Ageing: Peril or Promise?”, forecasting an economic and social firestorm - a world growing older at a rapid pace. By 2050 two billion people will be over 60 years of age – one in five compared to one in 10 today. I welcome the WHO decision to dedicate this year’s World Health Day to “Ageing and health,” with the theme "Good health adds life to years." Whilst the ageing trend started in the developed world, it is now accelerating faster in developing countries where income levels are much lower. Developing countries will grow old before they grow rich – putting the health of millions at risk.

To talk only of an ‘ageing problem’ is a grotesque mistake. Longer lives are a triumph. What are needed are solutions that make better use of longer life – reaping the longevity dividend by recognising older people as a resource, not a burden. For instance, the International Labour Organization recently brought together business leaders and workers from the retail sector to look at the impact of ageing on a traditionally young labour supply. The result is that retailers are preparing for adjustments to take advantage of a talented older workforce.

Fostering good health in older age is central to a considered global response to population ageing. Investing in health now will lessen the disease burden, help prevent isolation and has economic benefits for society by maintaining the independence and productivity of older people.

There is no doubt population ageing will result in an increased demand for acute and primary health care, adding to the financial strain of coping with long-term and social care. In the developing world, help with meeting this need is available through the social pension, a policy advocated by the winner of the 2012 Hilton Humanitarian Prize, HelpAge International. Government-funded, regular cash income paid to all older people as their right is both a powerful and cost-effective way of empowering older people and reducing poverty. In many developing countries, up to 40 per cent of the population live in households containing older persons, and these households are often poorer than average. Thus, targeting older people is an effective way to reach poor families, reducing not only their own poverty, but also the overall household.

At present, only 1 in 5 older people worldwide receive a pension. Yet, if the age at which the pension is first paid is chosen to reflect fiscal as well as social realities, the cost of providing coverage to more people is surprisingly small. A universal social pension would cost less than 3 per cent of GDP in most of the countries in Sub Saharan Africa.

The gains from such expenditure are large. Social pensions in OECD countries reduce elderly poverty by between 30 and 60 per cent. In developing countries older people’s pensions and agricultural incomes secure the livelihoods and health of whole family networks, are invested into children’s education and economic independence, and improve access to credit. This is seen in Brazil, where social pensions contributed to a 32 per cent reduction in income inequality and to improvements in children’s nutritional status and schooling. And South Africa’s social pension has improved girls’ nutritional status, with height gains of 3-4 centimetres, and is associated with an 8 per cent increase in school enrolment among the poorest 20 per cent.

Now imagine growing old without a pension, while living with a chronic illness. The main health challenges for older people are heart disease, stroke, visual impairment, hearing loss and dementia. As our world ages, the impact of these conditions is two to three times greater for older people in low- and middle-income countries than for people in high-income countries.

Yet, the health systems in these countries are not designed to meet the chronic care needs that arise from a complex mix of diseases. High blood pressure and consequently, heart disease and stroke, are the biggest causes of years of life lost. Yet, somewhere between only 4 and 14% of older people in low- and middle-income countries are receiving effective treatment. Economic independence would help to ensure that this improves. Health and insurance systems must also adapt to ensure quality care, in and beyond the hospital, but economic independence has to support this change.

Older people must be able to afford and live in good health because they hold up our society. In the developing world, they have a critical role in raising grandchildren, especially where parents have migrated or died from AIDS; their social pension is a form of family support. In Southern Africa alone 60 per cent of orphans are cared for by older people. The great majority of these households live on or under the poverty line, with no defence to a sudden threat such as a chronic health crisis for the older caregiver. The stabilising potential of a regular income for these households is immense.

This coverage gap is rightly seen as a central challenge, but one which can be solved. Social pensions are economically and administratively feasible even in poor countries. Relatively small amounts of money invested in older people also are investments in children, livelihoods and economies, thus sowing the seeds for the longevity dividend. We must learn now that what makes sense economically is also morally the right thing to do.

Follow HelpAge International on Twitter: @helpage

Elderly people dance during an afternoon get-together in Berlin. Credit: Getty

Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and 2010 Nobel laureate in economics.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder