Changing identity

25 January 2013

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Removing age discriminatory practices, encouraging age integrated behaviour and creating a space for the full recognition of the eventual frailty, and finality, of old age are essential if UK policy is to benefit from the changing demographics of the next ten years.

These are key recommendations made in a new report on the impact of 21st century population change on UK identity, authored by Oxford Martin Expert, Professor Sarah Harper, who is Director of the Oxford Institute for Population Ageing.

The report was commissioned as part of the UK Government’s Foresight project, The Future of Identity, and states: “The exciting opportunity for the UK’s maturing society over the coming decades is the possibility of age integration throughout society, and of increased interaction between successive cohorts. Mature societies are not societies which have large numbers and proportions of old people, they are societies in which people live longer, and may have the flexibility to enjoy each life stage for longer.”

According to Harper, UK demographic change over the coming decade will continue, marked by a rise in the percentage of older people, a fall in percentage of children, and an increase in the median age of the UK population. This changing age composition, or demographic ageing, of the UK population is being driven by falling fertility and increasing late life longevity.

It has long been recognised that population ageing has important implications. “It is impacting upon the labour market, saving and consumption, families and households, networks and social interaction, health and welfare services, housing and transport, leisure and community behaviour. In addition, the knowledge of both longer lives and the ageing of the population are influencing not only social and economic policy and political decisions, but also the attitudes and behaviours of individuals” says Harper.

Within families, past changes in fertility and mortality are leading to an increase in the number of living generations, and a decrease in the number of living relatives within these generations. Longevity is increasing the duration spent in certain kinship roles, such as spouse, parent of non-dependent child, and sibling.

Within the labour market, concerns over both high elderly dependency ratios (as the proportion of those who are post-employment increases in relation to those still in work) and the up-coming skills shortage (as the number of younger workers entering the labour market falls) has led to a rethink of retirement policies, leading to longer working lives and a more gradual entry into retirement than has previously been the norm.

Paradoxically while public and legal institutions are generally lowering the age threshold into full legal adulthood, (for example in age of criminal responsibility, age of sexual consent, leaving school age) individuals are delaying many of those transitions which demonstrate entry to full adulthood (by delaying leaving the parental home, marriage, childbirth etc). This extended economic dependence on parents also delays their parents’ transition to parenting non-dependent children. And awareness of ever lengthening life spans have given individuals at all ages, the time and the liberty to delay these transitions as they progress through adulthood. These are impacting upon changing identity as experienced by the individuals and the changing societal views of different age groups and require changes in UK policy if we are to benefit from these trends, says Harper.

The Foresight project on The Future of Identity set out to explore how changes in technology, politics, economics, our environment and demographics will affect our notion of identity, concluding “If the 20th century has been seen as that of the child, then the 21st century will be that of older adults.”

The Report identifies key challenges for effective policy making and implementation in a rapidly changing, globalised, technology-rich, and densely networked UK. It focuses on implications for: crime prevention and criminal justice; health, the environment and wellbeing; skills, employment and education; preventing radicalisation and extremism; social mobility; and social integration.