‘Culture Switch Needed To Cope With Wales’ Ageing Population’

The big differences between Welsh life in the 1970s, the present day and the future can be revealed today. While life expectancy has increased hugely there are now significantly fewer births, marriages and deaths than in 1971, according to an Assembly Government report on demographic changes in Wales since that year.

Between 1971 and 2005:

  • The number of births in Wales fell from 43,056 to 32,593;
  • The proportion of babies born in wedlock plummeted from 93% to 48%;
  • The number of marriages fell from 22,400 to 14,800.

The figures also reveal that the 32,104 deaths that occurred in Wales in 2005 was the lowest number recorded since 1971. At the start of the 1970s, Wales had the highest death rate in the UK, with 12.7 deaths per year for every 1,000 of the population. By 2005, this had dropped to 10.9, but Wales was still joint top of the UK list.

This demographic change is largely indicative of improved living standards which have seen life expectancy for women increase from 74.9 in 1976 to its current figure of 80.7, with the male equivalent rising from 68.4 to 76.3.

The changes led to warnings last night that a culture change is essential to allow society to cope with Wales’ ageing population. The claim came as figures revealed that all of Wales’ population increase over the next two decades will be consumed by a huge increase in the number of people aged over 60.

Changes in other age groups vary between a very slight growth and a significant decline. Between 2004 and 2024, Wales’ overall population is forecast to increase from 2,952,000 to 3,199,000, despite a 20,000 fall in the number of people aged under 60.

Conversely, the population aged 60 and over will rise from its current figure of 684,000 to around 952,000 by 2024 – placing a huge strain on the creaking pensions service.

The huge projected transformation in our demographic situation has led to warnings that health and employment policy must be drastically altered to adjust to the significantly increased number of elderly citizens.

Experts claim that:

  • Laws must be changed to allow people to work for as long as they choose;
  • Longer life expectancies will not necessarily imply improved health among elderly people;
  • The focus of healthcare must be moved away from hospitals and towards more flexible care structures.

Moves are already afoot to deal with the pensions crisis created by greater life expectancies, which has led to anger from employees who have seen their pension funds thrown into uncertainty because of a lack of resources. The solution can only be solved through removing the requirement to retire at a set age, according to Iwan Rhys Roberts, of Help the Aged Cymru.

The retirement age for women will be increased to 65 for women between 2010 and 2020, while the state retirement age for all will be gradually raised to 68 by 2044, it was announced last year. “Choice is the important word when it comes to working,” said Mr Roberts.

“People should be allowed to keep working for as long as they want to, but shouldn’t be forced into working longer then they want to because of their financial circumstances. There’s going to have to be a culture change with both employers and employees. There needs to be more flexibility and more encouragement of people to continue working if that’s what they want to do. We need to have a complete rethink about how we treat older people.

“We need to make sure that we create the opportunities to allow people to keep working as long as they want to. We are all going to be living longer, so why not give people the opportunity to work for as much of that extra time as they choose to – it’s just common sense. Pensioner poverty is a big problem, and if we let people work for longer it will go a long way to solving that as well as the pensions crisis.”

Mr Roberts added that generalisations about the health of the elderly population were worthless because of large variations in health levels, but accepted that health among people of “retirement age” was generally significantly better than in past generations.

But Professor Chris Ham, an expert in public health policy, warned that longer life expectancies were likely to entail people living longer with various degenerative disorders. “There is a lot of uncertainty about whether people age in a way that’s on the whole healthy, or unhealthy.

“The expert view is that people will live longer lives, but they will live more years with various long-term medical conditions like arthritis, diabetes and heart problems, so there will be more demands on certain health services. It will mean more care out of hospitals than in hospitals, more primary care services, and more home nursing services.”

But Prof Ham said efforts to address the demographic change had been ongoing for some time. “We have been trying to adapt to the demands for many, many years. Increasingly, public services know what’s required of them and are making efforts to change. In any case, just because the population is ageing doesn’t mean there will be a huge increase in demand. The ageing population only adds to the demand on services and budgets in a small way compared to the cost of advances in medical technology.”