Hear, hear we are living longer!
In ancient Greece anyone who lived to over 60 would have been seen as having tricked the gods. Fast-forward a few millennia and life expectancy has increased dramatically, especially in the most recent decades. According to the Office of National Statistics, the average person born in 1960 could expect to live to 52.5 years. Today, that average is 72.
The percentage of the global population over 65 is expected to double to 20% by 2050, reaching 1.6 billion people. In the UK alone, it is projected that nearly one in seven people will be aged over 75 by 2040. This data is even more astonishing if we contrast it with the mere 34% growth rate of the total population over the same period. Not only are we living longer but we are also having fewer children.
Rising life expectancy is clearly a major achievement made possible by modern science and healthcare. Food supply, physical fitness and hygiene have all seen marked improvements since the 19th century as our acquired knowledge improved our awareness of their importance to our health and life expectancy. This continued scientific research and groundbreaking new technology are making information around what is good or bad for us available to an ever-wider audience. Think of the warnings on cigarette packets, or the colour-coding nutritional details on food packages (which has worked miracles in my household to limit the consumption of food with more than one red mark!)
However wonderful this increased longevity may seem, the scenario is not all rosy. An ageing population poses extreme challenges to our societies and economies, with consequences we are currently unable to accurately predict. To name a few that we are aware of:
- Shrinking workforces and higher dependency rates
With older populations working less and requiring more care, fewer people are contributing to the growth of the economy. The Potential Support Ratio (PSR) – a measure of the number of working people (15-64) for each person aged over 65 – is anticipated to fall dramatically over the next 30 years around the globe. For some countries the situation is already severe. In Japan, the value of this ratio is 1.8, the lowest in the world. By 2050, 48 countries – mostly in Europe, North America as well as East and South-East Asia – are expected to have a PSR below two. By comparison, in the United Arab Emirates, the top country by PSR in the world, this figure is 63.
- Health – physical or mental issues affecting day-to-day activity
We will witness a relative shift away from acute illnesses towards chronic conditions, long-term frailty and cognitive impairments. This will become more common, especially among the “even older” older population (over 75). As a consequence, the public health sector and social services may be put under unsustainable strain. At the same time, those very families who form the working force will face increasing pressure to step back from work to care for their elderly relatives.
- New housing requirements
This demographic shift will increase demand for housing that meets the specific needs of older people. Governments will likely have to involve themselves in the building of new specialised housing or the adaptation of existing homes.
With all this in mind, should we expect an apocalyptic scenario of an overpopulated octogenarian dominated planet? Do we need to prepare for a world where governments will be faced with higher spending commitments, lower tax receipts, increased national debt, and economies that experience frozen growth and uncontrollable inflation?
I don’t think so. As always, there are two sides of the same coin. If managed with strategic foresight, these challenges may in turn present exciting opportunities for a diverse and prosperous society.
Let’s take a closer look at the investment industry as an example.
- Customised investment solutions for an older client base
By 2030, over 60s will become the largest consumer market segment for the first time in history. Many of them have accumulated wealth and have savings, hence they will have the means to enjoy life for many years and therefore invest. The current financial offering of products and services are aimed at an elusive, poorly identified “consumer”, so very few solutions are created specifically to anticipate and meet ageing investors’ financial needs. This demographic change presents an opportunity for financial firms to research this specific category of investor, their current and future circumstances, and develop flexible, customised solutions that will evolve over time together with investors.
- A more diversified workforce
In order to address the needs of an older investor base, it will be essential (and beneficial) for financial services to involve an older working force in testing and product design. One of the very few positives of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the discovery that it is possible to work remotely efficiently and effectively. This makes it easier than ever for firms to diversify their workforce and hire more senior employees who could work from home and/or part-time. I believe workplaces would be smarter, wiser, more reliable and resilient with more experienced elderly employees. Not to mention the vast professional experience and life mentorship older workers could impart to younger colleagues.
- Financial education
A very serious, but not widely discussed, issue that affects a large portion of the population over 60 is cognitive decline and the high risk of falling victim to financial abuse. The Financial Conduct Authority reports that 37% of adults aged 85 and over have at some point shared their personal banking details with somebody else, and judge that “currently, firm processes and systems don’t appear to be optimised for enabling third party access”.
This again presents a perfect opportunity for financial firms to invest heavily in technology to develop alternative ways for consumers to be protected from financial abuse and at the same time enabling them to get trusted third parties involved with their finances when it is more convenient to their circumstances and as their conditions develop. It is also a chance to provide older people and their carers with timely, easy to access and comprehensible financial information, training and education which would enable them to confidently take accurate investment decisions.
We can say without a doubt that the challenge of an ageing population has the potential to become a great opportunity for businesses. What is even more interesting is the larger role marketing is likely to play in squashing preconceived ideas and stereotypes, understanding the attributes and differences of segmented profiles – even within the same elderly demographic – and consequently contributing to creating innovative and customised products and services.
Next time my sons tell me I am old, I’ll have plenty of data to prove them absolutely wrong.
I am not getting old; I am just accumulating years.
- United Nations, World Population Prospects 2019
- FCA Occasional Paper 31, Ageing Population and Financial Services
- Mauro F. Guillén, 2030: How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything
- Government Office for Science, Future of an ageing population
- The science focus podcast, What does a world with an ageing population look like? Conversation with Prof Sarah Harper
- The Royal Geographical Society, Who wants to live forever?