If you’ve recently found yourself in front of the bathroom mirror, horrified at an errant grey hair that has appeared overnight and remedied the situation by yanking it from your scalp before its neighbours get any bright ideas, then spare a thought for the UK’s population as a whole. As a nation, we’re greying on a huge scale.

There were 65.1 million people in the UK in 2015 according to National Statistics, up by 15.8% on 1975, when there were 56.2 million. This is largely down to increasing longevity — growth in the number of over-65s stands at 46.8%, far outstripping overall population growth.  In 1975, there were 7.9 million people aged 65+; today there are 11.6 million. Only 529,100 people had made it to age 85 in 1975, just over a third of today’s 1.5 million.

17.8% of everyone living in the UK today is at least 65 and 2.3% are at least 85; in 1975, these figures were 14.1% and 0.9%, respectively.

The rise in the number of people aged 85+ over the past 40 years has been the equivalent of adding the population of modern-day Fiji to the UK’s, with room for over three Monacos besides.

Buckingham Palace Birthday Card Boom

National Statistics also publishes data on those it dubs “the very old” (ever the charmers, those statisticians). Between 2002 and 2014, the number of people aged 90+ has increased from 384,990 to 550,820, while the number of people aged 105+ has more than doubled, from 340,000 to 780,000.

Better medical care means despite having more numerous and more complex conditions, people are living longer than ever. Meanwhile, peering back through a fug of cigarette smoke to 1974, over half of men aged 16+ smoked, as did over 40% of women. By 2013, only 22% of men and 17% of women still puffed away. A shift in the UK economy from manufacturing and industry to one based more on services has cut the number of people employed in riskier occupations, such as coal mining, where the risk of early death comes not just at work but also afterwards through illnesses such as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (black lung). For those still in such jobs, health and safety legislation has come on leaps and bounds. Retail staff may endure the occasional assault on their eardrums from an irate customer and office workers’ thumbs may fall victim to a rogue stapler, but these are unpleasant workplace hazards, not life-limiting ones.

2055

The population will continue to age. By 2055, there will be 78.8 million people in the UK; 20.1 million will be at least 65. 6.8% of the population will be 85+ by 2055, with the total number having increased by 250.3% on 2015.

Resultantly, on the way up are the cost of the state pension and the age at which people are eligible for it, demand for social care, and replacements for worn out joints; on the way down is the proportion of working-age people to pay for all of these things.

In 2015, 56.8% of the population were aged 20 to 64 (a rough definition of ‘working age’, taking into account education and training in earlier years); by 2055, this figure will be 52.4%. Even taking into account the increased state pension age (SPA) and including people aged 20 to 69, it still only comes to 57.8% of the population. As the workforce shrinks, so too does the possibility for economic expansion. More adults drawing down savings to fund retirement will see the rate of saving fall, which can put upward pressure on interest rates. The UK economy, so reliant on debt-fuelled consumer spending, could falter, especially as older adults consume less than their younger counterparts anyway.

An ageing population has to be cared for, but a dearth of supply and soaring demand has plunged UK social care into crisis. The Government’s recent pledge to allow councils to hike council tax to raise up to £2bn towards the cost of care in their area is just a sticking plaster. A lifetime cap on the cost of adult social care has been pushed back because of costs. Even so, residential care is not cheap and, as people live longer and their savings dwindle (older people in England must fund their own care if they have assets above £23,250), the state increasingly steps in already.

The new National Living Wage (NLW) — while a boon for the careworkers so often earning the least per hour — is causing employers in the sector sleepless nights. According to the Local Government Association, the new £9 an hour minimum wage promised to workers by 2020 will come with a £1bn  price tag for the care sector — a fourteenth of 2014’s entire adult social care bill.

Without social care, elderly patients cannot be discharged and so stack up in hospital beds for want of better-suited (and cheaper) community care. More money has been promised to the National Health Service (NHS) and for social care, but with many hospital trusts already running deficits this financial year and an ongoing squeeze on local authorities, it is uncertain whether it will be enough.

So what can be done?

Working Longer But Smarter, Not Harder

The Government is already asking people to work longer. The new SPA for men and women will be 67 by 2028. In the quarter ending June 2015, 1.2 million people aged 65+ were still in employment already.

Still, at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), 57.2% of all expenditure on benefits in Great Britain in 2014/2015 went on just five payments: winter fuel allowance, cold weather payments (paid on top of winter fuel allowance when the weather is exceptionally cold), pension credit, television licences for the over-75s and the state pension. These five benefits cost £95.83bn; of this, the state pension alone gobbled up £86.52bn. The remaining 42.8% of DWP benefits expenditure was spread between 17 other benefits, including Disability Living Allowance (DLA), Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) and Housing Benefit.

Workers have also been encouraged to save more for their retirement with automatic enrolment into pensions. Retirement income reform also plays a part. Previously, most had to buy an annuity on retirement, but these have become increasingly poor value in recent years, hit by a double whammy of low interest rates and low yields on government bonds.  Now, retirees are free to access their entire retirement savings pot if they wish. The prospect of immediate access to their hard-earned, squirreled away cash over the trickle an annuity would offer them could be a major incentive to work longer and to save more.

Working longer would certainly boost economic output, increase the Government’s tax receipts and reduce the length of time pensions will have to be paid. But is this realistic? Should octogenarian firefighters be scaling ladders or centenarian solders be visiting Buckingham Palace to collect their birthday cards and service medals at the same time? Clearly not.

However, more jobs in the UK now require far less physical labour. As machines take over the backbreaking stuff, why can’t a 70-year-old the control panel? Or an 80-year-old? With the economy now more focused on knowledge and skills, why not turn to older workers — the poster children for wisdom? Higher-skilled workers tend to work longer anyway, largely because they are less likely to have manual jobs, they become physically incapable of doing so. As the UK economy shifts and record numbers of students get degrees, working longer seems feasible. Of course, even the best-educated people see productivity drop as they age, but this could be addressed with greater flexibility in working hours and payscales.

One of the major health concerns the ageing population brings is dementia — the risk of getting it roughly doubles every 5 years someone lives past 65. Keeping mentally active has been shown to help protect the brain, but increasing longevity sees many elderly people living alone, without much in the way of company or mental stimulation. This also means there is no one to notice if they fall or see them getting ill and summon medical assistance. Keeping older people active in the workforce — providing we are not expecting too much physically — could reduce loneliness and its associated health problems. Besides, as the proportion of young people in the population shrinks — in 2015 there were more people aged 65+ than there under- 14s — companies would be foolish not to tap such a resource.

Warren Buffett, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and majority shareholder of Berkshire Hathaway, the world’s fifth-largest public company, has no plans to retire at the age of 85. In 2011, the late British worker Syd Prior did retire, stepping down from being a customer greeter at DIY chain B&Q a few days before his birthday (the birthday in question was his 97th). This could become increasingly the norm — today’s babies are expected to live longer than ever, after all.

Perhaps babies born today may even rival Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, whose longevity record has remained unbroken since her death in 1997 at the age of 122. Of course, some might not bother to clock in at all once they hear Ms Calment’s secrets — a diet rich in olive oil, port, a kilogram of chocolate per week, a 96-year cigarette habit... and never having worked at all.