What our ageing society needs from the next Prime Minister 

Do you think that the UK is governed by, and largely benefits, older people? Over the last year some people have suggested this to be the case.

And yet during the current battle between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak to become the next Prime Minister, we’ve heard very little reference to policies that would help address the fact that millions of us are on course to have a pretty dire old age.

This is perhaps even more surprising when you consider that the Conservative Party members that both PM-hopefuls are aiming to win over are largely older themselves, with estimates of the average age of this group ranging between 57 and 72 years old.

The number of people aged 65 and over in England is set to increase by over 20% in the next 10 years and one in five people now aged in their 50s and 60s are set to face an old age marred by poor health, poor finances, loneliness and isolation. Despite this, there has been little discussion on the very immediate issues around ageing, such as how to curb rising pensioner poverty which the cost-of-living crisis and the rising state pension age threatens to exacerbate.

More than one in seven pensioners live in poverty while recent research by the IFS showed that the rising state pension age had doubled poverty rates for those on the cusp of retirement and pushed 100,000 more people into poverty. This is not a legacy that any government should want at its door.

And how do we encourage the return of more than 200,000 workers aged between 50 and 64 who have left the labour market since the pandemic? As the chair of John Lewis said earlier this month, the number of older workers leaving the jobs market has not received sufficient attention and the government needs to think really hard how to reverse the trend. And yet, only Liz Truss has made the smallest of references to an aspiration that older workers can keep working if they want to without indicating what the policy levers will be. This will not come into fruition merely through wishing it so.

The next PM needs to prove they are serious about improving access to work for people in their 50s and 60s by investing in tailored employment support for those out of work, expanding access to occupational health support, and delivering on their predecessor’s manifesto promises around flexible work and carer’s leave proposals.

How will the next government ensure that more homes are built that meet the needs of the homeowners and renters now, and 30 years in the future? The recent announcement that the government intends to raise the minimum accessibility standard for new homes has largely gone uncelebrated by candidates. But why? This could be a real feather in the cap for the next PM, transforming the lives of millions of people who are older, disabled, or families who simply want homes that they can easily move around in with buggies and pushchairs. The next PM should also prioritise the progression of the Renters Reform Bill white paper to deliver on a range of measures to improve the private rental sector including applying the decent homes standard.

There are of course many other burning issues. What are either politician’s big plans on that greatest of electioneering taboos, social care? The warning signs are flashing red on a system that is perpetually under enormous strain. Among the many voices calling for urgent action, Dr Adrian Boyle of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine said recently: ““We are seeing the sharp demise of the health service and we are seeing little to no political will to act on or acknowledge the crisis – neither of the leadership candidates seem to recognise the scale of the crisis at hand.” And yet both candidates seem extremely reticent to reveal any major reforms, mindful no doubt of the hostile reception to Theresa May’s planned reforms which were quickly shelved ahead of the 2017 General Election.

In truth we don’t know much about either candidate’s position on a number of really significant issues around our ageing population because none of these vital issues have been given sufficient scrutiny in the leadership race so far.

Part of the problem is that no government has ever looked at the issue of ageing in the round. We have piecemeal policies that touch on different aspects of ageing, but no strategy to meet the challenges and opportunities created by the fact that people are living longer and birth rates are falling.

That’s why we are advocating the creation of an Older People’s Commissioner (OPC) for England. The position has proved an effective advocate for older people in Wales and in Northern Ireland and is a popular policy with voters. Polling by Ageing Better earlier this year found over two thirds of all age groups support the creation of the independent role which would safeguard and support the rights of older people.

But it’s about more than supporting current older generations. This role would ensure that we are thinking about the bigger picture when it comes to ageing. An OPC would help to tackle ageism in society by promoting positive and diverse portrayals of ageing and older people, and challenging negative stereotypes. The Commissioner would champion the social, economic and cultural contribution of older people across society.

An OPC can push for the change we need to make sure people now and in the future can age better, more healthily and tackle the inequalities in ageing that currently mean that a person from a wealthy London borough has 16 more years of healthy life than someone born in less affluent parts of the North East.

Delivering on these policies won’t mean that we live in gerontocracy. It will simply show that the next government cares about the future wellbeing and prosperity of millions of its older citizens, and that it wants future generations to be able to look forward to a good old age.