As more and more people live longer, society needs to plan for their social as well as financial well-being…

As we said farewell to 2010 we may well have felt that it was good riddance as well as good bye. International disasters have dominated the news headlines. The results of the international financial upheavals of the past three years are still with us. In Europe, serious questions about the stability of the Euro still dominate comment, as do serious questions about problems of individual countries. And of course, Europe is only one focus of anxious concern. We clearly live in a difficult world.

It is important to remember, however, that not everything invites pessimism. One piece of news that emerged towards the end of the year is that life expectancy in the UK is constantly improving. The Department of Work and Pensions believes that nearly one fifth of people who are alive now in the UK will survive until they are at least 100. The expectation is that by 2045 there will be more than 200,000 centenarians.

If that is true — and there is no reason to doubt it — it is a truly remarkable thing for anyone of my generation to contemplate. My wife's grandmother lived until she was 103, but that was quite exceptional. Centenarians were a rare group.

Coping with change

There are, inevitably, all kinds of considerations that must be taken into account as we contemplate the kind of change that is predicted. One very practical consideration is that it will put much pressure on the country's pensions and social care systems, as people face spending a growing proportion of their life in retirement. The Minister for Pensions, Steve Webb, addressed this point when he commented that the predicted figures “really bring home how important it is to plan ahead for our later lives”. This need, he explained, lay behind planned changes to the pension system to make sure that people can look forward to a decent state pension when they retire, and that more people are encouraged to save through workplace pension schemes.

One cannot argue with this need for planning to enable people to cope with greatly extended lives. It is surely not, however, just a matter of ensuring that centenarians have enough money to live on. Other important issues need to be addressed.

One is the current way in which employment is organised. There is, with many employers, an assumption that on reaching a retiring age people can, and should, be “put out to grass”. As someone who retired from my main job at the age of 60, I can see some force in the argument — but only if we recognise that although moving to a less demanding and exacting job may make sense, it may make equally good sense to undertake different work. It was my good fortune to be able to do just that, and I had a large measure of control over organising it that way. Not everyone will be in that position, but the general point remains worthy of examination: experience can be valuable. It may even be accompanied by wisdom, though obviously age and wisdom are not synonymous. Nor, however, are youth and wisdom; there are plenty of foolish people well below retiring age!

Difficult issue

Another issue, much more difficult to resolve, is social context. Many people in the UK now live many miles from their families. The changing employment scene over the past half century has brought that about. In consequence, the support of the extended family, taken for granted in many societies, is often in the UK simply not a realistic expectation. How, then, shall we be able to make proper and suitable provision for the care, including healthcare, of the growing cohort of people in their nineties and above?

One woman of 104, interviewed on the radio about life as a centenarian, commented, with humour, that there was no peer pressure to worry about. As a civilised society, however, we surely need to recognise that if more and more people are living not just without peer pressure but without peer support, we have a responsibility to do something about it before it is too late.

Getting the pension system right is clearly one thing that needs to be done. Getting the social context right is at least equally important, and I suspect will be much more difficult. We cannot realistically expect to put the clock back where the proximity of an extended family is concerned. We must surely replace it with something else. Quite how to do it is beyond my elderly wisdom, but it needs to be done.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: bill.kirkman@gmail.com.