James Nazroo, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity at The University of Manchester, opens our mini-series of blogs examining The Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing’s (MICRA) new report ‘The Golden Generation?
Professor Nazroo states that the ‘golden generation’ label applied to today’s older people is a myth. Policy interventions focussed on achieving positive outcomes for older people need to pay direct attention to inequalities in later life.
- Your experience of older age is strongly determined by your social and economic circumstances.
- For the less well-off retirement involves fewer years of life expectancy, poorer health and greater constraints to participation in social, cultural and civic life.
- The main policy response has been to focus on increasing pensionable age which leads to increased inequalities.
- To tackle inequalities in later life policymakers must focus on addressing factors such as employment and job quality, retirement, pensions, housing, and social and cultural participation.
The promotion of ageing well has become a key strategy for health and social policy and we have, for many years, been at the forefront of research to understand the implications of ageing populations and the experiences of people in later life.
In particular, our latest five-year research project has been specifically concerned with understanding the processes that lead to both positive and negative outcomes in later life and how these are shaped by social and economic inequalities. Our findings have strong relevance for policymakers, practitioners, activists, citizens and researchers alike.
Social and economic factors
Our central conclusion is that your experience of older age is strongly determined by your social and economic circumstances. The significant inequalities that shape our life course continue into later life and impact on health and wellbeing.
The most affluent in society – those who are most visible to us as this older ‘golden generation’ – are likely to experience life after retirement as a period of health and opportunity. But the reality for the less well-off is that retirement means fewer years of life expectancy, poorer health, fewer resources and greater constraints to participation in social, cultural and civic life.
Worryingly, our research also showed that there was no evidence that levels of health were improving for more recent cohorts of older people, despite increases in life expectancy. And even more worryingly, the health of the poorest third of the population seems to be deteriorating for more recent cohorts compared with their previous cohorts.
This implies that any gains in life expectancy for this significant segment of the population are likely to be composed of additional years spent in poor health, with the potential for greater associated social and healthcare costs.
Policy interventions focussed on achieving positive outcomes for older people need to pay direct attention to these inequalities in later life. It is of great concern that inequality is very rarely considered in the discussion of such policies.
The main response so far has been to focus on extending working lives by increasing the age at which the state pension is received, alongside other pension reforms that reduce benefits. Such approaches increase the vulnerability of those in poorer or more uncertain employment conditions so run a high risk of increasing inequalities among older people.
This narrow consensus on policy options needs to be rethought. Indeed, little thought appears to be given to the actual consequences of raising state pension ages without paying attention to the quality of the jobs that people work in.
In addition to inequalities in levels of economic prosperity, inequalities in social factors are very important. Levels of social, cultural and civic (including volunteering) participation are all relevant to health and wellbeing outcomes and all show marked inequalities.
For example, while our research showed that volunteering has generally beneficial effects on health, the opportunity to volunteer relates directly to levels of wealth. Similarly, the risk of being, and of becoming, socially detached is greatly increased for poorer older people.
Likewise, we find that despite increases in digital participation over time, including for older people, those who are poorer remain much more likely to be digitally excluded. The rapid digitisation of so many public, financial, shopping, social and cultural services makes inequality in digital participation in later life particularly important. It results in poorer older people being more likely to not be able to fully exercise citizenship because they are excluded from the digital revolution. In addition, those who are excluded from this revolution are also more likely to have difficulty in physically accessing services such as banks, cashpoints and supermarkets.
Our research tells a complex story of pathways leading to inequalities in health and wellbeing in later life. The close connections between economic, social, psychological and health factors produce a complex cascade of direct and indirect influences on wellbeing and health in later life. And they also relate in complex ways to circumstances in earlier parts of the life course.
What we show more than anything though, is that these pathways need not be inevitable and there are obvious opportunities to influence the direction of these trajectories at various points in the life course including in later life.
As such it is vital that policymakers focus on what can be done to tackle inequalities in later life, paying attention to addressing factors that relate to inequalities in later life employment, retirement, pensions, housing, and social and cultural participation.