Ageing population

Life expectancy in the UK is rising and birth rates are falling. By 2034 twenty-three per cent of the UK population is projected to be aged 65 or over – within which an estimated 3.5 million will be the ‘oldest of the old’, that is, aged over 85 [1]. Led by the mass retirement of the ‘baby boomer’ generation, the next decade is likely to see significant social, economic and political issues emerge in an effort to address the effects of this key change in the structural composition of the UK population.

A key element of these changes is that the old-age dependency ratio is increasing, meaning there is a growing proportion of the population in retirement compared to those of working age. This is expected to rise from 25% to 53% by 2050. However, what it means to be ‘older’ is also changing and the elderly population is becoming more diverse (see diversity of older people).

What are the implications?

  • Older people will form an increasing proportion of the electorate and are more likely to vote than younger people. The ‘grey vote’ is therefore likely to have increasing political influence.
  • Future older generations are predicted to be healthier and more active. In the short term this may mean a rise in potential volunteers as the ‘baby boomer’ generation reaches retirement.
  • However, in the mid term, anti-age discrimination legislation, better health and a statutory rise in the retirement age to manage the cost of the state pension bill will see more older people working for longer, whether they want to or not (see changes to retirement and pensions). This will decrease the number of old but active volunteers.
  • In the longer term, especially as baby boomers become the ‘older old’, there will be a rise in demand for health services and long term care, possibly combined with constrained public spending, creating a challenge for the funding of public services and pensions and increasing pressure on families and friends to support retirees (see changes to care and careers).
  • This burden is likely to increase the proportion of the population in poverty. Individuals will be expected to cover more of their own care and health costs. Without changes to pensions and retirement, pensioner poverty will increase, especially if the recession and stock market volatility continues to affect pensions.
  • The ageing population will impact on charitable giving as different age cohorts have different values, as well as attitudes towards giving in general and towards particular causes.
  • The welfare state is based on an implicit contract between generations. Tensions may arise if welfare gains for older people are seen as being at the expense of workers (see attitudes to different generations), particularly as the government puts more emphasis on individual responsibility.
  • Immigration will become increasingly important to sustain public services as the older population grows.

Moving forward

In the short term, an active and politically powerful older population keen to work or volunteer presents an opportunity to VCOs, but in the mid term older people are likely to work longer.

  • How can you encourage the ‘baby boomers’ to offer their skills to your organisation, paid or unpaid?
  • If you rely on newly retired volunteers, how can you plan for a mid term dip in numbers? Can you recruit younger or older volunteers?

As the workforce ages and retirement ages rise, employers will need to offer more flexible work and ensure that older people are not discriminated against.

  • Can your organisation offer more flexible working to attract older people who want to work part time or combine volunteering with a longer working life?

An increase in the numbers of ‘older old’ people (80 plus), will mean more with complex needs. The ‘baby boomers’ are more assertive, put more emphasis on lifestyle, and do not consider themselves ‘old’.

  • How can you ensure that your services for ‘older people’ reflect the diversity of these needs and expectations?

As differences between generations become more pronounced, voluntary and community organisations may be expected to ‘bridge social capital’, bringing young and old together.

  • What can your organisation do to encourage social cohesion?

Longer lives and the need to pay for one’s own health care and social care may reduce the availability of regular giving, cash donations and legacy income.

  • How can your organisation’s fundraising and membership adapt to take account of an ageing membership?

The ageing population will also put pressure on the funding of public services, which may reduce the amount available for VCOs, especially those not providing core services.

  • What strategies can your organisation put in place now to manage potential changes in funding? Can you diversify your income sources or work in partnership with other organisations?

Want to know more?

Future Focus 6

Published by: NCVO

Date: 2009

Format: PDF

What is it? Paper on what the population of the UK will look like in 2014.

How useful is this? Contains and explains a collection of drivers which are influencing the demographics and nature of the UK population.

Other comments:

The age agenda 2008: public policy and older people (Age Concern, 2008)

Published by: Age Concern - a charity that promotes the well-being of older people

Date: 2008

Format: PDF

What is it? A report identifying key policy concerns of particular relevance to older people.

How useful is this? This is the 5th edition of 'The Age Agenda' and, as in previous editions, aims to give a clear outline of the major policy concerns. Acknowledging the recent progress made on pension reform, the report emphasises the need to develop a coherent and sustainable system of social care. The report also contains focused articles on areas such as older voters and retirement migration.

Other comments: In 2009 Age Concern merged with Help the Aged.

Europe's Demographic Future: Facts and figures on challenges and opportunities, Commission of the European Communities, 2007

Published by:  Commission of the European Communities (an inter-governmental body)

Date: 2007

Format: PDF

What is it? A long report studying the risk and opportunities of European demographic change.

How useful is this? The report gives full statistics for demographic change to 2050 for Europe as a whole and for each country, and places these against global demographic trends. It concludes that gender equality, creating longer and better quality working lives, receiving and integrating migrants, increasing productivity and achieving sustainable public finances are essential in the next ten years if Europe is to mitigate its ageing population.

Other comments: The European Demography Forum will publish ongoing reports.

Focus on Older People

Published by: Office for National Statistics - a Government Department

Date: 2008

Format: Website with PDFs

What is it? Statistics on characteristics, lifestyles and experiences of people over 50 in the UK.

How useful is this?The Focus on Older People report covers: living arrangements; housing; labour market; health and well being; health and social care; income, wealth and expenditure; and lifestyle. As the report is very detailed you may find the summary is sufficient.

Other comments: The wider Office for National Statistics site includes UK population projections 2006 to 2031

Active ageing in active communities: Volunteering and the transition to retirement

Published by: The Joseph Rowntree Foundation – a research and development charity

Date: 2005

Format: PDF

What is it? This report uses qualitative research to examine the practical and policy issues around the role of older volunteers.

How useful is this? The report examines the role of volunteering in the transition from paid work to retirement. The introduction provides a background on ageing population, reasons for volunteering and government policy.  The following chapters explore practical issues and policy debates including volunteering and the transition to retirement, volunteer recruitment and how to overcome barriers, management of older volunteers, and benefits of older volunteering. It also looks at possible future trends.

2020: Opportunities ahead for older people

Published by: Shaping Tomorrow – a futures website

Date: May 2010

Format: PDF

What is it? Report from Shaping Tomorrow's Research Director on trends driving the ageing population and shaping its future.

How useful is this? A good introduction to futures thinking, this report provides an overview of the issue which is great as a means of getting to grips with it more generally. There are also statistics to help ground you in the issue. The impact of an older population on several issues is broken down with subheadings, making the report easy to read. This part covers: in the workplace; in education and training; in care and support for independence; impact on local communities in relation to climate change; new business models. The website requires free registration.

Next Generation Services for Older and Disabled People

Published by: i2 media research Ltd - research consultancy

Date: September 2010

Format: PDF

What is it? Report commissioned by Ofcoms Advisory Committee on Older and Disabled People (ACOD) on how technology will influence care for older and disabled people in the future.

How useful is this? The report looks at how new technology can be used in the future to provide services to the elderly and economically inactive in order to make them more socially included and hopefully make them economically active once again. This is an in-depth study which also gives useful background information regarding new technologies and the ageing population.


  1. "Fastest increase in the oldest old" - ONS, 2010 [back]
Last updated at 17:03 Fri 25/Mar/11.

Recent comments

Brian's picture


Guest specialist

Interesting article in the Guardian on the impact our ageing population will have on social care.

Kathryn's picture


Third Sector Foresight

The ageing population was a key driver mentioned several times at Intelligence Squared's event The World in 2050. Picked up by both Professor Sarah Harper and Dr Ian Goldin.

The points made in this post definitely apply to community centres and similar organisations. The vast majority of them work with older people – our annual survey of members indicated that about 85% of them list older people as one of their main user groups. The rising numbers of older people, the health implications for living longer than ever before – for example, the rising numbers of people living with dementia – and the flurry of policy interventions around the aging population are all things that present opportunities and challenges to community centres.

For example, many of our members currently have contracts or grants for providing lunch clubs or similar services for older people. How will diminishing public spending and the roll out of personalised budgets affect this? Will our members have to shift from lobbying local authorities for grants or tenders for block services, to clever marketing strategies that entice individuals to contribute to a shared service?

There could also be an opportunity for really innovative inter-generational work, since a similar number of our members also work with children and/ or young people. We’re probably in a “golden age” for retirement at the moment; retirees are usually relatively fit, healthy and have valuable skills. My generation will probably go back to having to work until we’re ready to keel over! This cohort of newly retired people are often some of the wealthiest and most advantaged in some communities. How can they be engaged with giving a helping hand to young people, who face real financial and social challenges in getting started in life?

But the older people of the next couple of decades won’t be the same in many ways as most of the older people of today, and definitely not the same as the older people of the post-war years, when many of our members got started. There will obviously be more of them, which might be a good thing for keeping volunteering numbers up. But they will have very different expectations of their older years and will perhaps not embrace an “elderly” lifestyle enthusiastically. How will community centres have to change the services and leisure activities they offer to continue to attract this relatively healthy, longer-lived, often extensively educated cohort? The governance and volunteering opportunities offered by many community centres are often quite process-driven. Think of committees, with their long-term and consistent commitment. How will this play with the individualistic, consumerist baby-boomers?

Join the discussion!

How will this affect your organisation? Have you considered it during your strategic planning? Can you share any interesting relevant links?

Log in or join for free to comment.