Embracing UK population ageing

ageing population

Director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, George Leeson, talks about the reasons behind the UK’s population ageing.

The Oxford Institute of Population Ageing (OIA) was established in 1998. Based on the US Population Center, it was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Health to establish the UK’s first population centre on the demography and economics of ageing populations.

The challenges of ageing are truly multi-disciplinary, require a life-course approach and recognition of the wider age-structural change within which they are occurring. For example, without significant improvements in health, population ageing will increase the amount of ill-health and disability.

As Governments around the world wake up to the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population, the need for robust research to inform policy development has never been more acute.

Director of the OIA, George Leeson, speaks to SciTech Europa Quarterly about population ageing in the UK and how it should not be seemed as a ‘problem’.

What is the work and role of the OIA?

The work we do here at the OIA is research based around global population change; in particular, the demographic issue of ageing of populations on a global basis. Our role at the institute is that we want to produce very high-quality research, but most importantly research which is informed by (and informs) policy. Alongside doing fundamental research at the institute, we also want this research to be used in order to enable communities and governments to address the issues, challenges and opportunities that arise from the ageing population. We look at this issue on a global scale. To enable us to do this, that we have four main research networks: Latin America, Africa, Central and Eastern Europe, and the Asia Pacific.

The idea behind these networks is that we have members of the networks who are primarily, but not exclusively, academics who are working and based within their region. For example, in Latin America which is one of the research networks that I run, we have about 100 members of our Latin American Research Network and they are pretty much all academics at universities/research institutes in the region. The reason why we focus on academics in the region is because the research network has the additional aim of not just promoting research and enabling research collaboration nationally, but also to train that next generation of academics working in population ageing research.

The aim of the OIA is to ‘undertake research into the implications of population change’. What does this involve, and how is this achieved?

We look at what the drivers of this population change really are, and the reasons behind these changes. For example, looking at the reasons why we have the current population structure, and factors such as any historical developments that have shaped this population structure (such as childbearing and migration). It is important to look at factors such as these because our society needs to serve that population structure, and as a result this then creates the question of if the current infrastructure that we have, is fit for purpose. There is an element of forecasting because we are making population predictions based on how we think mortality and levels of childbearing and migration, both internationally and domestically, will develop in the coming decades. Having said that however, we also need to consider what this really means. For example, what are the implications of our populations being old, and what does it mean within families, communities, the workplace, and also for the government in terms of, for instance, health provision and housing etc. However, it should be mentioned that what is becoming an increasingly important dimension is the role of technology.

In Europe our populations have been ageing for over 150 years. It has been happening slowly and it’s been gathering pace since the end of the Second World War, but we have had time to get used to population aging; however even so, we are still struggling. Whereas in Asia, the 150 years that we had for our population to age is equivalent to 25 or 30 years in many Asian countries there – their window of opportunity is much shorter and closing quite quickly. Many people still regard population ageing as a ‘problem’, and it is because we have difficulty in really understanding that ‘old age’ is changing. It’s not just to do with the population structure because in every generation the new generation of old people is very different from the previous generation. For example, people are much healthier, and maintain that health for much longer. As a result, healthy ageing means that we are pushing in front of us to a later onset age of the diseases and frailties of ageing, which will inevitability come, however for some people they will be quite severe, and for others they will be less severe.

Many people are still fixed into the mindset that at age 60 that’s it. That is definitely not the case, and it is a very seriously flawed policy to keep pushing because the other side of population ageing is that we stopped having children; current generations are having far fewer children than the previous generations did. Therefore, in terms of moving forward, generations coming into the workforce in the future are going to be much smaller. If we maintain a policy, which is getting rid of those older, healthy workers, we’re going to be squeezing the labour force at both ends. That’s one of the biggest challenges when it comes to population aging. It is not the population, which is the problem, it is the infrastructures (and unfortunately our mindsets).

This then leads onto the question of ‘what can be done to limit the effects of population change?’. Our workplaces need to change and accommodate older workers. Everything in society that makes up the infrastructure needs to be changed because they were originally put into place for a young population, and we don’t have young populations anymore. In addition to this, there is no sign on the immediate horizon that we’re ever going to go back to a demography of young populations. We need to really change that and make the most of the ageing population rather than side-lining it and classing the older generation as out of activity.

What would you say are the main reasons behind the fact that the UKs population growth has remained at its lowest rate since 2004? Is this a bad thing?

The main driver behind this is the very low levels of childbearing. The UK has been in a rather fortunate situation as the impact of population ageing in this country has been mitigated to a great extent by international migration and now, we want to turn off the tap so to speak on that.

Thinking back to what I was saying about these generations entering the workforce which we have been lacking now for quite some time, has been compensated for by international migration. That has softened the blow of our own population ageing. Whereas if you look at contries such as Germany, where recently they took in over a million migrants, the impact on its ageing population was much more severe because it hadn’t reaped the rewards of international migration due to its restrictive migration policy.

In addition to low levels of childbearing in the UK, we have also not been dying on time. Therefore, not only have we not had growth through birth, but we have not actually experienced people dying and that sort of balances that out to a certain extent. However, this is not a bad thing. I know we are currently experiencing, in some parts of the world governments for all sorts of incomprehensible reasons, the need for their women to have more children. This is because they do not want to have to rely on immigration to address the challenges of an ageing population, and that they don’t want their native population to become a minority in their own country.

Whereas, in my opinion, I think we really should be question whether or not we actually should be encouraging women to have more and more children at the moment. If we think about it, our demography at the moment is giving us a bit of a breathing space, taking the pressure off that population growth (not just in terms of here in the UK, but also elsewhere in the world). One could say that this really gives us a window to be able to address some of the other big challenges (such as climate change and consumption), before we even begin to think along the lines of ‘well, we are now in a better position where you can have more children if you want to, and we will make sure that you can still have an education and a career.’ However, I think purely pro-natalist policies in isolation are extremely difficult to defend.

What role does the government play in coping with the ageing population? How can the next PM tackle the rising costs of the UK’s ageing population?

The government should have a very central role in developing policy around this population ageing. It has taken governments an extraordinarily long time to acknowledge the importance of this population ageing, and the fact that it’s not going to go away. Here in the UK, the government initiated the ‘foresight programmes’ in key areas looking to the future and what it might look like. Under Cameron, there was a foresight programme on the ageing of the UK population, and that has now developed into something much bigger. The industrial strategy and the grand challenges, which the government are now looking into, also have the pillar of an ageing and healthy ageing and what can be done (both in terms of research, development and innovation) in bringing stakeholders together to make sure that the country gets the most out of this population ageing.

It is a good thing, but it took a long time to get here. Some of the first governments to address population ageing was in Scandinavia and it happened around 30-40 years ago, where they were concerned about ageing and wanted to be able to develop policies in order to address these issues. Elsewhere around the world, particularly in the lower middle-income countries, ageing is probably seen as one of a very long list of issues to be tackled. It is more difficult in Sub Saharan Africa for example to convince governments that ageing is an issue when they have so many other serious issues to tackle.

There is such a solid platform here in the UK that it would be very reckless to turn our back on that. I think that we have a really solid basis moving forward, with us seeing it not just as a challenge but as an opportunity for Britain to really lead globally in this area. I think that would really be a feather in our cap if we were able to do that. There is a lot there already, and I think as long as whoever comes into government and whichever government it might be, they should look into what we have rather than thinking on the lines of ‘how do we tackle this’ and they certainly should not ignore population ageing because it is there and it is not going to go away – we need to address it.


Dr George Leeson


Oxford Institute of

Population Ageing


Tweet @oxford_ageing


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