Harriet Harman

Labour Member of Parliament for Camberwell & Peckham

Speech to Age UK

The change in the number of well, older people demands a change in public policy. We have to understand that we now have a new cohort of well, active, healthy older people. The role that they play in their families, in the economy and in society must be recognised and responded to. We must recognise the emergence of the "Wellderly".

 

There is a growing number of older people and a falling number of younger people. In Britain for the first time, there are now more people over state pension age than the number of children under the age of 16. People are living longer and are healthier in old age.

 

In just 20 years time, half of the adult population will be over 50 and the number of people over 85 will have doubled.

 

This is a demographic revolution, and it's set to continue. And it's not a problem, it's really important that we don't identify it as a problem - it's a change. And the challenge is for public policy to change too.

 

So ageing shouldn't be seen as an inevitable problem, but as a different stage in life. Getting older shouldn't be the end of the road, but the start of a new road. Older people play an important part in our society.

 

Firstly in relation to family life. People seem to talk about parenting as if it's parents of children under the age of 18. Parenting does not end when your children become adults, it just changes. The role of the parent doesn't end when the children become adults - older family members often play a very important part in caring for grandchildren as well as continuing to care for their adult children. Many families with young children can simply not cope without the support of the older generation, not just in very important caring terms, but also in financial terms as well. Over 65s account for around a third of all those carers providing more than 50 hours of care a week, and many of the very elderly rely on the care and support of the relatives in the next generation down, who are themselves retired from paid work.

 

The role of older people, because of more active, healthy older people is becoming even more important in local communities like local voluntary organisations, like community groups, like hospital leagues of friends, charity shops, tenants associations. So this cohort of "wellderly" is very important in all of those things that are part of community cohesion.

 

Older people are also very important in the labour market. 1.4 million people over the state pension age now have a job, and they've been the fastest growing group in employment. People over 50 are also more likely to be self-employed than younger people. In the future, as the physical demands of work and the demands for manual strength in work continue to become less important and as skills and judgement continue to become more important, then there is going to be an even greater premium on older workers and fewer obstacles for older workers. Those trends of more emphasis on skills, experience, judgement, decision making, and less emphasis on manual work and physical demand - that's another trend which is simply going to continue.

 

There's also the economic importance in terms of the spending power of the "wellderly." Older people are growing in importance as consumers. People over 50 account for 40% of annual consumer spending as owning 80% of the country's wealth.

 

So the challenge to public policy is to "come of age," and this is essential for every individual because it's a matter of human rights. It's essential to our economy because of older workers and because of older consumers. It's essential for a fair society, which takes account of the interest and needs of all.

 

And that's why the issue of age is at the heart of our commitments to equality, to our economic policy and our social policy. We recognise the growing importance of older people as one of opportunity not problem or decline. Practices and systems which reflect the old order, which discriminate against older people need to be identified and rooted out. And it's also a question of respect too, because it is important to recognise and respect the generation which fought for, saved, and built our country into what it is today. And this is not just a gratitude for past deeds; this is about the role they continue to play in the future life of this county.

 

So over the years, what we've done is we've tried to listen to older people and take action in response. If you think of a whole range of actions that have been taken over the last decade, whether it's free prescriptions for over 60s, free bus travel, free eyesight tests, free swimming, financial help with the cost of heating, insulation, free TV licenses for over 75. All of those things have been taken forward.

 

We've made it a priority to break the link between retirement and a lower standard of living, to break the link between poverty and old age. Compared with 1998, there are 900,000 fewer pensioners living in poverty. And as a result of key measures that have been taken over the years, pensioners are less likely to be living in poverty now than people in the population as a whole. Average pensioners' income from the state are up by 18% over that period, more than the rise in earning. And I think that that is absolutely a bottom line.

 

We've also ensured that older people have a legal right not to be discriminated against at work, or harassed because of their age - and that's been through the introduction of the Employment Equality Age Regulations.

 

Because we know also that most older people, if they're frail, if they need extra help, they want to be looked after by their families, and want to provide extra care and support for older people, we have created a whole a policy to support families caring for older relatives. Extending the right to request flexible working for those who care for an older relative, and we're increasing the support for older people living in their own home.

 

We very much rejected the argument from those who said 'because the economy is in difficulty, we should put equality and people's rights, we should put all of that on the backburner - it's a luxury we can't afford right now.' We reject that argument, it's precisely when economic times are hard that everyone is treated fairly and that everyone pulls together. And we have to look at the growth of the economy in the future and who are going to be the employees in the future. So we've pressed on with promoting equality for older people particularly through our Equality Bill.

 

So though the government has put older people at the heart of our policy agenda over the last 12 years, and I think that we have made significant progress, more needs to be done. This issue of our ageing society is a major public issue which the government will give even greater focus to in the future.

 

As demographic change continues apace, we have to step up the pace of public policy change to anticipate the changing role and also the changing aspirations of older people. Our ageing society is not just a challenge for central government and local government; it's a challenge for the whole of society, a challenge to policy makers, employers, a challenge for pension providers, and a challenge to individuals and families.

 

And we have to deal with the issue of attitudes lagging behind. We have to challenge the old fashioned notion which defines you through your importance to the world of paid work, and if you're no longer in paid work, sees you as 'past it'. We have to tackle the attitude that once you reach 60 you're just treading water until you inevitably become frail and dependent. I think older people feel and strongly resent these attitudes.

 

There is also the way that age discrimination differentially affects men and women. The most evident, symbolic demonstration of this is in the broadcast media where ageism against older women is evident and different from the attitude to men.

 

I think we've got to say really clearly there is nothing wrong with women ageing; it's just a different stage in our lives. Many are just getting into the prime of their working lives having taken time off when their children were young. Many are newly at the heart of caring responsibilities within their families as they take on the role of caring for their grandchildren. And airbrushing, like the controversy there was over the airbrushing of Twiggy in the Olay ads is rooted in the sexist notion that the sexual attractiveness of a woman in her reproductive years is the most important characteristic for a woman, and which places no value on experience and wisdom in a woman.

 

The broadcast media does seem to find it able to value the older man for his experience and wisdom, but doesn't find it possible to value the older woman in the same way. To be a BBC News presenter - I was just looking at the age of the news presenters. To be a BBC News presenter a woman has to be 10 years younger than a man. It's the same story on ITV - the women have to be 10 years younger. This is an outdated view and it's resented, not just by women in broadcast media, but also by women viewers, where we've all seen the iconic examples of Joan Bakewell and Arlene Phillips, who both typify the talent and experience that should be valued, and valued more.

 

Now turning to the political stage, last week Saga produced a very thought-provoking manifesto for older people, with a number of policy ideas to tackle age discrimination. One of their recommendations was that political parties should monitor and report on the age of parliamentary candidates. We welcome this suggestion at the Labour Party and we'll certainly do this. We need a breadth of age and experience in Parliament just as there is in the country as a whole.

 

Turning to the question of the world at work, the labour market needs to do more to capitalise on the opportunity of the "wellderly." The flexibility needed for 24/7 workplaces and needed for parents with children is breaking the full time 9-5 mould and that offers more opportunity for the flexible decade of retirement. The employment rate of those over State Pension age is only 11%, despite the fact that the majority of people say that they would like to work in some capacity for longer - possibly not the same hours as they might have done previously, but still to carry on working.

 

In our ageing society we can't afford to lose from our workforce the educational qualifications and skills of older people. People working to an older age is what many want, it retains for the economy the important investment in their skills and it helps tackle the challenge of maintaining the standard of living of a growing number of older people against a background of fewer people under 60.  Our Equality Bill and the Equality and Human Right Commission will step up the fight against ageism in the workplace, which is estimated to cost the economy between £16 billion and £31 billion per year in lost GDP.

 

Further Government action

 

Reviewing the compulsory retirement age - Whilst the majority of people retire from work before they're 65, 1.4 million people choose to work beyond state pension age many people say they would work past 65 if their employer allowed them to. It's time to look at this again. Some people prefer to take early retirement, others prefer to keep working. We want to give older people flexible retirement options to give them choice.

 

We're therefore bringing forward our review of the Default Retirement Age, which was scheduled for 2011 - but we're bringing it forward to this year. We've already begun the process of discussing this with organisations such as the CBI, trade unions and yourselves, and gathering evidence to inform this review.

 

Our Equality Bill will also protect people at work through giving new legal protections from discrimination for those at work, on the grounds that they are caring for an older member of their family.

 

Standard of living - As far as the standard of living in retirement is concerned, despite making much progress, we've got to continue to improve this. That's the basis and justification for our two most recent pension acts, ensuring that people have a solid foundation on which to save for their retirement.

 

Our state pension reforms will tackle the historic inequalities in the system between men and women - as the Prime Minister said at the Labour Party conference last year, we're going to reintroduce the link between the basic state pension and earning.

 

We will ensure that employers play their part. From 2012 employers will be required automatically to enrol their employees into a workplace pension and to contribute at least 3% of the worker's earnings into that scheme. We're making sure that retirement income is not sacrificed by those doing the important work caring for children and older relatives. This means that almost half a million women currently aged between 45 and 55 will be entitled to a full basic state pension when they retire.

 

One of the things I think is very, very important indeed, and a big challenge to all public authorities, and we need to really make the most of it, is the new duty on the public sector in the Equality Bill to promote equality for older people. People are familiar with the public sector duty on gender, to tackle discrimination against women, and the public sector on ethnicity, to tackle discrimination on grounds of race.

 

The new Equality Bill has in it, a duty on all public authorities to promote the needs and interests of older people, and this will apply to all public authorities - central government, local government and agencies - to think about what this actually means. So whether you are talking about leisure facilities, whether you are talking about parking, whether you are talking about travel, housing, healthcare, public bodies will have to take account of the needs of older people in the services they provide, and through their employment practices. This in addition to the right not to be discriminated against.  

 

So for example, it will probably mean that when granting planning permission for new housing estates, planning authorities will have to look, not just at the homes for young parents with children, and to look at the opportunity for children's centres, but will need to look at the granny flats, the bungalows, and the lunch clubs. They'll need to be thinking about park benches as well as play areas for young children. All this is in addition to the new public sector housing requirement that they meet standards including level or gentle slopes approaching property, doors wide enough to allow wheelchair access, and socket controls at convenient heights. So all public authorities and public sector housing will have to look to those issues.

 

There is also a very important issue on education and training for older people. We've said over and over again as a government, you know, education, education, education. We absolutely know that for our future economy and for each young person to achieve their potential for our economy to grow, we need the skills. We need the advantage of all the qualifications that people can have. But actually learning should be for life, and many older people find as they wind down their paid work that they will have the opportunity to expand their minds in a way that they might not have been able to when their nose was absolutely to the grindstone of work. They want to do courses whether it's in history, whether it's in a foreign language, whether it's ballroom dancing, whether it's something like carpentry or weaving; actually when we talk about education and skills, that is important not just for young people, not just for people in work to upgrade their skills, but it's also important for people who've retired from the world of work as well.

 

So all that education and training for life doesn't just mean for working life, it should be for all of life as well. And that's not just what older people say they want, what the "wellderly" say they actually want, but it's also very good for physical and mental well being. We plan to invest £4.4 billion in 2011 for further education and skills for adults and this will include training and education for older learners.

 

In the Equality Bill, as I've said, we will ban the last legally permitted discrimination - age discrimination in the provision of services and the exercise of public functions. Things that are beneficial such as free bus passes, store discount cards for the over 50s will still of course be allowed. Following consultation on how this would work in practice, we will ban age discrimination for anyone in the public or private sector providing goods and services. This will come into force in 2012 across the board, including in health and social care sectors. We're also changing the law, as I said, so that all public authorities have to take into account the needs of older people.

 

There is also the issue of the growing number of frail, elderly, dependent people who do need extra care. As well as helping families who go out to work and care for younger children, we've also helped families balancing work and caring for an older relative, through the introduction of the right to request flexible work.

 

We need to make sure that more people know about it. Most people have begun to get the idea that you can ask your employer to flex your hours because you have got the responsibility of young children. But most people don't know that you can ask your employer for a different work pattern if you're caring for an older relative. Suppose you want to actually go late into work on Monday morning and work late on Monday because you want to take your elderly mother to the shops to get the week's shopping. That's the sort of request for flexible working you could make to an employer and under the law they have got to respond reasonably to it. So we've looked at the question of support for older people through flexible working for their families.

 

As you know in July 2009 we produce a Green Paper Shaping the Future of Care Together, we have got National Care Service proposals, and we've got the Personal Care at Home Bill. So we're pressing forward very much with the agenda for helping families support dependent and frail elderly people, making sure that there is the right level of care coming from social services, health services, and the voluntary sector - for people in their own home and also for people in residential care.

 

Lying behind all of this is a substantial and far reaching demographic change - a real demographic revolution, which requires a substantial and far reaching response. Above all, this has got to be a democratic response - it's got to listen to and understand the needs and also the aspiration of the new cohort of "wellderly," which I don't know actually whether I am in already, but I look forward to joining.

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