Older people are an asset, not a drain

Volunteering and caring responsibilities mean older people are net contributors to the economy, a report has revealed

Debate about our ageing society is conducted typically in terms of the problems and costs of supporting growing numbers of older people. But a study published today turns that premise on its head. Far from being a burden on the economy, it says, older people are in fact net contributors.

The research, for volunteer charity WRVS, is the first to attempt to quantify the role of older generations. Taking together the tax payments, spending power, caring responsibilities and volunteering effort of people aged 65-plus, it calculates that they contribute almost £40bn more to the UK economy than they receive in state pensions, welfare and health services.

Moreover, the research suggests, this benefit to the economy will increase in coming years as the “baby boomer” cohort enters retirement. By 2030, it is projected, the net contribution of older people will be worth some £75bn.

Lynne Berry, WRVS chief executive, admits that the calculations are a first, necessarily rough, stab at assessing the value of the part played by older people in society. But she hopes that the figures will have the kind of positive impact on the public debate about the ageing society that quantifying the contribution of informal carers – currently put at £87bn gross – has had on the profile of the carers’ movement since the first estimate was made in 1993.

“It was once you could put a figure on the contribution that carers made to support relatives that the whole issue of caring got that national prominence,” says Berry. “We want to see the contribution made by older people really change the story from them being a drain on society to them being the most extraordinary resource.”

The WRVS co-ordinates the efforts of some 50,000 volunteers who deliver meals-on-wheels, staff community clubs, run shops and cafes in hospitals and do much else besides. Many of the volunteers have retired from paid employment and it is the potential of the “younger older” to play a growing role in this way that Berry sees as a solution to the challenge posed by the pincer effect of the ageing society and the retrenchment of public services.

An ICM poll carried out for today’s study found that 65% of older people say they regularly help out elderly neighbours, are the most likely of all adult age groups to do so, and that 55% of those who say they volunteer either formally or informally are members of between one and five community groups – again, more than any other age cohort.

Berry says: “The baby boomer generation is the best educated, healthiest and fittest group of younger older people this country has ever seen. All these people are now coming up to 65 and the question is, how are we going to make sure that they use their skills in their communities? It has got to be one of the ‘big society’ asks to grab this generation and exploit their talents as a form of social glue.”

The study’s calculations on the net contribution of older people have been made by economic analysts SQW. It estimates that older people benefit the economy to a total of £175.9bn, including delivering social care worth £34bn and volunteering worth at least £10bn, compared to welfare costs of £136.3bn.

By 2030, the study suggests, the estimated benefit will be £291.1bn, including almost £52bn worth of social care and £15bn through volunteering, compared to projected welfare costs of £216.2bn.

The figures and methodology have been vetted by independent experts including Robert McNabb, professor of economics at Cardiff Business School. He says that while he has some reservations about parts of the analysis, particularly the forward projection, he is sure that older people do make a net positive contribution and, indeed, suspects that the value of their caring and volunteering may have been under-rated in the study.

“People tend to be modest when they are asked how many hours they spend helping neighbours, or how long they spend volunteering at the local hospital,” says McNabb. “So although the survey shows what a significant amount of time – and therefore money – is involved in these activities, I think some of these figures are really quite conservative.”