The sign of a civilised society should be how it treats its old people. If this maxim is accepted then the increasingly ugly inter-generational tension that seems to be building in the UK does not augur well for the future.As the baby boomer generation reaches pensionable age, there is a growing public discourse that seems to pitch the old against the young. Put simply the charge is that the baby boomer generation (born 1945 to 1965) had all the benefits - they grew up with the health service, have homes, received welfare and a free education - with those who wanted to go onto higher education receiving grants for the purpose.
Now, they receive a state pension, fuel allowances, free travel passes and other benefits. The debate continues that the young are resentful of all this. They increasingly charge the baby boomers with destroying the planet, contributing to the national debt and having the best of all worlds. The younger generations claim they will be lucky to ever own their home outright, have huge loans to service if they want to go onto higher education and job prospects are not good. Life will also be different in a world dogged by climate change. All of this and they also have to pay for the upkeep of the elderly.There is a quite rabid debate developing. It gives no credit to the massive contribution made by the elderly to society. The taxes paid over the years. The free childcare provided courtesy of many elderly people for their grandchildren. The massive amount of voluntary work done. At the worst end of this debate, some seem to be suggesting that elderly people should even pay some sort of super tax for being old. This type of development really would destroy any notion of the society in which we live being civilised.Some facts about the elderly population could prove helpful at this juncture. In 2009, there were 12 million pensioners living in the UK, 7.5 million women and 4.5 million men. This represents 19 per cent of the total population. By 2050, the number of people of state pensionable age is forecast to be 16 million, which will represent 21 per cent of the population.Average life expectancy in England stands at 77.7 years for men and 81.8 years for women. There are though wide differentials according to where a person lives. So a man in Blackpool will live on average to 73.2 years compared to his counterpart in Kensington and Chelsea, who lives on average 10.5 years more. Some 2.5m pensioners are living below the official poverty line in 2007/8 defined as 60 per cent median population income (equivalent to £158 a week before housing costs). Some 61 per cent of pensioner couples struggle by on £15,000 or less. 45 per cent of single pensioners have an income of £10,000 or less. The state pension is £95.25 a week.Some 3.5 million older people live alone. One in five over 80s suffer with dementia, with this ratio closing to one in three for over 90s.These statistics give a snapshot of what it is like to be old in Britain today.
The lack of sympathy for the elderly population is reflected in recent moves to increase the pensionable age from 65 to 68 over the coming years. This is justified on the basis of people living longer and society not being able to afford the cost. There is also the growing concern over the closing ratio of pensioners to those in work, with the figures moving toward 2:1. Recently, for the first time the number of people over 65 exceeded those under 16. The cost issue is largely a misnomer. The National Pension Fund which takes in money contributed via natioanl insurance to provide for the state pension is £52 billion in surplas. This figure is set to rise to over £100 billion in the coming years. The increase was helped by the change in 1980 linking pension rises to the prices as opposed to the earning index. This is soon to change back but according to the National Pensioners Convention (NPC) had the link not changed the state pension today would be £158.60 not £95.25.So overall, it can hardly be said that elderly people have an easy life. Fortunately, many are increasingly finding a collective voice through organisations like the NPC. Grey power has for many years played a significant role in the political scene in America but in Britain the response has been more muted.
As the attacks continue though, from extending the retirement age to cutting pensions and benefits, grey power here has the potential to be a very potent political force, with pensioners representing 19 per cent of the population. What is more, they are far more likely to vote than other younger groups. It is time that the pensioners voice was heard louder and more clearly. The way forward though is for young and old to join together in solidarity, because the one certainty in life is that one day most of us will grow old.