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7 February 2008

Care revolutionaries

As politicians debate social care, the sixtysomethings of the baby boomer generation are getting rea

By Stephen Armstrong

“The first thing is, I don’t feel like I’m old,” says Martin Skelton, 59, a former teacher from Brigh ton who now runs his own business.

“I exercise, I eat well, I go rollerblading with my granddaughters and I’m still working. I’m from a generation that thinks nothing is impossible. But suddenly I’m aware that in ten years’ time, I may fight some serious health problems. And I guess I’ve been brought up to expect I’ll get looked after in the best way possible. The worry is, what happens if I don’t get that?”

As Skelton has discovered, the change-the-world baby boomers have spent the past 40 years marching and jogging until they have suddenly come face to face with an unforgiving wall of data. In 2006, there were 9.4 million people in the UK aged 65 or over. This is projected to rise to 15 million by 2015 as the postwar baby boomers move into retirement, reaching 16.5 million in 2020 as the tail end of that generation passes the age of 60. Thirty-seven per cent of those aged 65-74, and 47 per cent of those aged over 75, have a limiting long-standing illness. As a result, every year, more than two million people become carers, and 1.25 million unpaid carers provide more than 50 hours of care per week.

With almost £15bn a year spent on social care in the UK, the arrival of this bunch should present the nation with a worrying problem – the boomers have left the workforce and, at some point in the next ten years, the chances are that they will need to be cared for. Are we, as a country, ready for this to happen?

The first surprise seems to be how unready the boomers themselves are. In a (strictly unscientif ic) New Statesman survey of boomer attitudes, we found the vast majority of people we interviewed who are in their sixties and early seventies felt like Martin Skelton – completely unwilling to see themselves as old. They all refused to use the word “pensioner” but would settle for “retiree” at a push. Most still had a foot in the workplace and some had launched new careers.

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“I had spent a lot of my life working for a small accountancy firm, but just before retirement I set up a gardening business, and I fundraise for charity,” explains Mike Dominum, 69, from Norfolk. “We’re going to be active for much longer than our parents. My mum was almost housebound from the age of 65 but I would think I’ve got another five years of work in me yet.”

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Can-do attitude

The baby boomers are famous for their optimism, their do-it-yourself attitude and their refusal to accept the limitations their parents were prepared to shoulder uncomplainingly. They are also the generation that began to worry about food scares, that dabbled in alternative medicine and picked up on health fads such as jogging and dieting. As a result, most of them still feel vague ly immortal. Very gradually, however, many are becoming aware of their future needs – and they are not happy about things.

Mark Ratcliff, who runs the research consultancy Murmur, recently conducted a study into the attitudes of the boomers for one of the big four high street banks. He found that an angry suspicion was developing as they approached the age when they would be relying on health care.

“Most of the people we spoke to had either suffered themselves or knew someone who had suffered when they called on things like private health insurance or even the NHS,” he says. “One guy complained that when his wife developed cancer, his health insurance would only help if she would not be seen by the NHS within six weeks, which hadn’t been made clear when he signed up. He thought it would have been better to stick the £20,000 he’d paid them over the past few years under his pillow.”

This generation, Ratcliff’s study showed, had travelled further and more frequently than their parents. They had been to hospitals abroad and found a higher standard of health care, and were stun ned and angry at how cheap it was. “Whether in Eur ope, Canada or Australia, they found that clean hospitals and high-quality treatment were readily available,” he says.

“They’ve read about the money being invested in the NHS, but they don’t see it when they’re sitting in their local A&E on a Sunday.”

Ratcliff believes there’s a sense of fear growing among the boomers – that they’ll wind up abandoned on a hospital trolley or rotting away in an uncaring old people’s home like their parents. What the NS straw poll illustrates, however, is that once the boomers meet the system they thought they’d defeated on the campus in the Sixties and Seventies, they are more than ready to take up arms again.

“When I look at our parents’ generation, I think they were essentially passive, did as they were told and let things happen to them,” says Liz Hodgkinson, 64, a writer and journalist from Worthing, West Sussex. “If the doctor gave them a pill, they took it. If the council sent them to a home, they stayed there. Our generation are more likely to research the alternatives online, whether that’s a new treatment or a chat room about avoiding a home. Basically, we’re not going to put up with it unless it’s on our terms.”

Peter Andrews, who organises the West Country commuters’ action group More Trains Less Strain, agrees. Andrews, 59, has co-ordinated two fare strikes in protest at First Great Western’s fares and crowded trains. “We were the generation that rounded people up to head for Red Lion Square on Vietnam anti-war protests simply by printing flyers and handing them out,” he recalls. “Since getting the fare strikes organised, I’ve been going to environmental meetings in Bath, and it’s only my generation and the teenagers who seem outraged and ready to do something. I think we have a sense of com munity, a sense of ourselves as a generation that makes us still potentially dangerous.”

The key area of conflict looks set to be housing. With three out of four councils offering social-care housing to “critical needs” retirees only, most of the boomer generation face being means-tested to secure a place in the kind of lonely homes they had sworn to avoid.

Robert Stewart, a 63-year-old former soldier from Dumfries, believes “co-housing”, a modern version of that Sixties staple, the commune, may be the answer.

“Co-housing was pioneered by the Dutch, but it’s catching on with the boomers as they approach retirement,” he explains.

“A bunch of us club together and buy a big house, then pool our resources and hire three Polish nurses to handle the health care. You don’t live alone and you have control over your own fate. You’re already seeing it in places like Spring hill in Stroud, and in a new development in Somerset called Great Bow Yard.”

“Our readers are very keen on co-housing,” says Emma Soames, editor-at-large for Saga Magazine, “but there needs to be a lot of work done on it by people and by government. You need to get it arranged before the years you need it – typic ally from the mid-seventies – and planning regulations are not sympathetic.

“However, the boomers are a large group of people stepping into a part of the population that has been largely silent. You’ll see more movements like the Pensions Action Group, who stripped at party conferences and fought pensions legislation to the high court – and won.”

“The point is,” says Andrews, “you can’t rely on the state to provide for you unless you bully the state and change the system. So we either do it ourselves, or get bullying.”

In the new Smith Institute report Advancing Opportunity, David Brindle, the Guardian‘s public services editor, warns that the political parties have not taken seriously this group’s determination, or the problems they are likely to face.

“By tradition, much of the responsibility for caring for older people has fallen on the family,” Brindle says. “But the fragmentation of the family, combined with the growing proportion of women in paid employment, calls into question whether current levels of caring can even be sustained – let alone increased.”

He concludes with a warning to politicians: “We are only just starting to explore what all this will mean for our society.”

What is clear from speaking to the boomers themselves, however, is that they have their own answers, their own way of bringing them about, and they know they’ve got the numbers to make it happen.

Baby boomer power by numbers

80% of the UK’s wealth is controlled by the over-fifties

2:1 ratio of baby boomers who vote to those aged under 45

14% of baby boomers agreed with the survey statement: “The people in charge know best” (against 20% of younger age groups)

23% have boycotted a product on ethical grounds; baby boomers pioneered ethical consumption

5 number of years that members of Pensions Action Group staged “naked protests” before government agreed to change pensions legislation last year

Research by Alyssa McDonald