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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.