April 20, 2011

UK Life Expectancies On The Rise

According to new figures released this week, and based on data produced by the Office for National Statistics, more than 25 percent of British children 16 and under can expect to live to 100 years old.

Just 30 years ago, more than a quarter of newborn boys were expected to die by their 65th birthday. Ministers said the rapid rise in longevity will have huge implications for public policy in a wide range of areas such as health and transportation, leaving taxpayers to pick up the tab on the ageing population.

The statistics, published by the Department for Work and Pensions, show that more than 11 million people alive today -- roughly 17.6 percent of the population of Britain -- can expect to live to more than 100 years old. This is 200,000 more than last year's estimates.

For men, who have lagged behind women in life expectancy more than not, last year saw their longevity increase faster than women -- by 46 days on average.

Pensions minister Steve Webb said the state pension system had to be made "fair and sustainable for future generations" if people were going to spend more than a third of their life in retirement. But others believe a much more radical approach is needed.

While the increase in life expectancy was "a huge societal success," it will come at a price, said David Sinclair, head of policy and research at the International Longevity Center.

"If the projections are true, then the impact on service provision is huge and as a society we are heading towards huge fiscal service pressures," he told The Telegraph.

Millions of workers relying on the state pension will see their retirement pushed back to age 66 by 2020 and 68 by 2046. Linking the state pension age to longevity could further increase the pension age to 70 by mid-century, announced George Osborne in last month's Budget.

"What is striking is that while we all know people are living longer, we haven't grasped how fast it is going. The speed of change is astonishing. There are big issues for us as a society in all sorts of policy areas, such as social care, employment and pensions, but also in terms of our attitudes to older people," said Webb.

As well as the state pension, Webb warned that employees with private pensions should plan to save more for their retirement. Ten thousand people will celebrate their 100th birthday this year. That figure is expected to rise to 500,000 by 2026.

Activists argue that increasing the retirement age has a lopsided impact on women who planned on retiring at 60, and men in low income areas, where longevity is often lower.

"Living longer does not equate to being able to dig a road for longer, or even to being willing and able to do a job like teaching into your late sixties," Neil Duncan-Jordan, of the National Pensioners Convention, told The Guardian.

"The Government keeps pushing these figures that we are living longer as a means of trying to force us to work for longer "“ but they need to move on from this obsession with longevity and view the issue in a less black and white way," said Duncan.

"Average life expectancy figures hide the fact that in many places, predominantly poorer areas, life expectancy is much slower. Before the Government further looks to raise the state pension age it must first tackle health inequalities to ensure that those who have had harder lives do not again lose out through a shorter retirement," said Michelle Mitchell of Age UK.

"The pressures on local authorities and central government will have a very, very significant impact - as will the knock-on impact on other ages and other generations. If the older population demands more and more resources, then it has to come from their own wealth and assets - or from someone else," Sinclair told The Guardian.

That could form the root of the problem, said Sinclair. While the increased number of active centenarians might help change and improve our attitudes to older people, their ever-presence could give rise to antipathy.

"The pessimistic side is that there is a very real risk that it could generate even more intergenerational tensions if you end up with a clash for resources between young and old - and that is what we really need to avoid," said Sinclair.

One of the challenges would be deciding when to work and when to have children, said Professor Jane Falkingham, head of the school of social sciences at Southampton University and director of the ESRC Centre for Population Change.

"Although medical advances are pushing up the age at which women can bear children, the most fertile period is and is likely to remain the 20s and 30s," said Falkingham. "One question is whether it makes sense to juggle work and family life, or whether we in future will invest in parenthood and then invest in work - and work into our 70s."

"If people are going to restructure their lives and have their children first and then have work, they're going to have to have something to live on when they're having the children before they pay it all back through the world of work," she said. "So it's thinking about how the welfare state can operate across the life course, as well as how individuals restructure their lives."

Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at the University of Sheffield, said the ONS projections should not be taken for granted.

"Britain currently has the lowest life expectancy of almost any western European country and we need to ask why," he said. "Japan has the largest number of old people in the world; Japan also has lowest income and probably the lowest wealth inequalities in the rich world."

Prof Sir Michael Marmot, who led a government-ordered review into Britain's widening health inequalities, last year said that the projections would illustrate how variable outcomes could be for different people.

"We'll have some people working all their lives and not having nearly as much time to enjoy their pensions, and other people working all their lives and having decades to enjoy their pensions because their life expectancy is much longer," said Marmot.

"Unless we're going to take the kind of steps that my health and equality review called for - unless we're going to take the steps to reduce that - these new projections will mean much longer, healthier lives for some but not for others. It won't be uniform by any means," he added.

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