Those commonly described as ‘older people’ number over 10 million, and cover an age range of up to 40 years. Within such a large group there will be great differences not only in terms of age, but of family structure, social class, gender, sexuality, health, income and wealth, housing, social contacts, employment status, retirement, and religious practices and beliefs.
To differentiate within this diversity, some people distinguish between active retired people up to about the age of 75 – the third age – and older people of 75 and over who are likely to need more care and support – the fourth age. Many voluntary associations, including churches, depend heavily on third-agers to run their activities.
Demographically, there has been a major shift over the last century. In 1900 people died in roughly equal proportions in all age groups: now the great majority survive to at least age 70, and much larger numbers live beyond 90 (a trend which is predicted to continue). While many of these are much healthier and more active than in previous centuries, the sheer weight of numbers of those who survive with degenerative conditions makes increasingly heavy demands on welfare and health services.
Men continue to die earlier than women, leaving a substantial gender imbalance by age 85.
Meanwhile, family structures have also changed. Since the first world war families have had fewer children than previously, though completed family size has varied: for example, many fewer children were born in the 1930s, against the ‘baby boom’ immediately following the second world war, which then repeated itself as those children reached child-bearing age in the late 1960s. Meanwhile, greater longevity means that four and even five generation families are becoming more common. A further demographic change has been the rising divorce rate. There were fears, once, that this would result in a reduction in family support for older people, but this has not been realised; family support seems to depend on a much wider range of variables relating to closeness of individual family members, though mother-daughter links are usually stronger than those between men. Despite popular stereotypes, family support remains strong, where it is feasible, though geographical mobility and, again, longevity – 70-year olds caring for 90-year olds – create problems. It is also worth remembering that the growth of ageing populations in western countries is far less an issue than it is in developing countries.
These are some of the facts about being older in Britain today. The experience of being older is a very different matter, again affected by all the factors mentioned above.