The 50-65 age group in the UK is big – approaching 14 million people in all – but policy-wise, its members are rather left to get on with it. That needs to change.
To be a member of this enormous cohort means you are in the pre-retirement phase of life. Often referred to en masse as “boomers”, all but the group’s youngest members are indeed the product of the postwar baby boom. “Boomer” is generally a term of abuse, but apart from the absurdity of the notion that all these individuals are living the life of Riley, the conventional narrative for the group also means that the contributions they make to our economy and society tend to be taken for granted – along with the conditions necessary to sustain them.
The most successful and fortunate 50-somethings are usually at or near the peak of their careers. However, by this stage in life the pigeons are coming home to roost; both in a positive and negative way. If you have had a good education and good jobs, for example, you are likely to be enjoying a comfortable income, be a homeowner, and living in reasonable health. Conversely, if you didn’t attain many skills and qualifications, you may not get as good jobs; your lifetime income may be lower and your assets, too. You are more likely to be renting and coping with ill health. And, as you may guess, the statistics show there are more older women living like this (particularly single women) than men, and more people from minority backgrounds.
Across the pre-retirement cohort, inequality is staggeringly high. At its most shocking are the estimates of the number of expected years of life left, which vary significantly according to race, sex and geography. For example, life expectancy for men was almost nine years lower, and for women almost eight years lower, in Blackpool, Middlesbrough, Manchester and Liverpool, than Westminster, Camden and Kensington and Chelsea.
Health gaps between the north and south have grown over the last ten years. The gap in healthy life expectancy, for example, between England’s most and least-deprived areas is stark, with a gap of almost two decades (18.2 years) between the most and least affluent areas. Not only do people living in more deprived areas have much shorter life spans – they also live more of their later years in poor health.
Belatedly, these trends have started to attract serious policy attention, because of concern at the level of economic inactivity post pandemic. In 2022, the Health Foundation reported that the number of 50- to 69-year-olds who were economically inactive due to ill health had slowly grown before the pandemic: reaching 1.7 million in the three months to July 2022. In the same period, a massive 3.8 million 50- to 69-year-olds were inactive and reporting a long-term health condition.
The rate of economic inactivity in the UK fell by about 232,000 adults last year; the total was still 257,000 above the pre-pandemic level of economically inactive, however. Many of those are still in the pre-retirement age range. And although the views of policymakers about the primary causes differ, the main contributory factors are clear enough to see.
The first is undoubtedly ill health. “Long Covid” will be playing a part but, as many health experts point to, the causes are more entrenched. As a nation, over the past decade, we have invested scant policy attention or resources into public health; over the same period, poverty and inequality have risen. We have also underinvested in the NHS, particularly in the GP and community health services that deal with smaller health problems before they develop into bigger ones. It is therefore unsurprising that one outcome is high numbers of 50- and 60-year-olds in chronic ill-health – with many currently languishing on waiting lists for diagnostics and treatment.
This is exactly the time in life when those serious health conditions often start to manifest: diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and serious lung problems such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Musculoskeletal conditions like arthritis are especially prevalent among people doing manual jobs. Not all of these problems can be prevented, but some can and others potentially delayed.
As a result, many people in this position are unable to work. Another reason why some leave employment is not because of their own health problems, but because of someone else’s, and becoming effectively a full-time carer for them – usually for an ageing parent or sick partner. The political failure to refinance and reform social care means it is not unusual for people to find it difficult or impossible to secure a good professional care service for an ailing loved one, leaving them with no choice but to scale down or stop work in order to care for them. This too is most likely to hit people – women especially because of societal expectations – in their fifties and sixties.
Finally, if you lose a job at this age you are more likely to endure prolonged unemployment than if you are younger. Why? A host of reasons, with a big one being ageism in the labour market, plus the absence of support programmes specifically designed for older workers, whose needs are different from those of young people with little or no job experience.
Increasing productivity will undoubtedly be a top priority for the next government, but it won’t be achieved without practical policies to support and enable the pre-retirement cohort to be in work – and stay in work. Simply raising the state pension age (again) won’t do it; a much broader policy response will be required.
[See also: Ageing well with technology]