Dr Jane Pilcher, Department of Sociology, University of Leicester:
Britain is a long way from being broken, if new evidence published this month on the activities and inputs of older people is anything to go by. Their volunteering activities, caring responsibilities and tax contributions make them well-established ‘big citizens’, and social superglue – and way before David Cameron came up with his notion of the ‘big society’.
New research for the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service calculates that people aged over 65 contribute around £40 billion more to the British economy than they receive (PDF) in state pensions, health and welfare services. In addition to their tax payments, and the not inconsiderable value of the ‘Grey Pound’, the research also found that 65% of older people say they regularly help out elderly neighbours. Almost one in three older people formally volunteer (29%) and two thirds (64%) informally volunteer on a regular basis. Altogether this voluntary activity has been calculated to be worth over £10 billion per annum to the economy. Add also the fact that older people are often an important provider of (free) childcare to their children’s children, and older people emerge as very important ‘big citizens’ who make a significant social contribution to the everyday life of Britain.
Younger adults like Nick Clegg have been reported as claiming they are ‘too busy’ to do voluntary work. Rather embarrassingly for Cameron, even his Big Society Tsar Lord Wei has cut the number of days he devotes to his (unpaid) role, apparently so he can earn some money and spend more time with his family. Most adults, with their paid work and family responsibilities, are under these kinds of time and resource restrictions. These are classic features of the adult stage of the life course, which make it more difficult for them to take part in regular voluntary work of the kind glibly envisaged within Cameron’s Big Society. In contrast, by the age of 65, or so, older people are at a stage of the life course where they may begin to find more free time, as they retire from paid work and have an ‘empty nest’ – grandchildren permitting. Evidence certainly shows that older people are more likely to be engaged in voluntary activity than people at other stages of the life course.
Yet, we are all encouraged to ‘conceal the signs of ageing’, and older people in Britain are often negatively stereotyped, and subjected to ageism. Worries about the ‘costs’ of an ageing population surfaced long before the fiscal crisis and cutbacks to ‘big government’, especially in the form of public services. In debates about the ‘population time bomb’ in the context of an ageing of the population, older people have been portrayed as a burden and a drain on societal resources. What the new research on the socio-economic contribution of older people shows us is that, far from being a drain on resources, older people are a key net contributor, and that is the case whether we measure in purely quantitative, fiscal terms or more qualitative, social terms.
Clearly, we need to start thinking differently about the whole ageing of the population issue, and the role of older people in British society. We need to stop portraying population ageing as a negative problem, and one exacerbated still further by the fiscal crisis. We need to recognise that British society is made up of groups of people who are at different stages of the life course, with different roles, responsibilities and demands on their time. Older people are at a stage of life where they can more easily be ‘big citizens’, and very many of them are, giving of their resources and their time in a whole variety of important ways.
But older people are not a separate class of person, who have only ever been ‘older’. They were once ‘busy’ adults, with full working and family lives, contributing to society through their taxes, work and family roles. In other words, their contribution as citizens to the working of British society has been varied and lifelong, and as the new research shows, is continuing in the latter stages of their life course, too. Perhaps this is a cohort effect, with the current crop of over 65s exhibiting values and actions rooted in more localised, traditional community sensibilities than younger, selfish, individualised cohorts? I don’t think so. Older people are in, important respects, our future selves. They are continuing to do what citizens in a ‘good society’ (a la Ed Miliband) have always done at various stage of their life course: at some stages ‘giving’ more than ‘taking’, at other stages ‘taking’ more than ‘giving’ – but overall, across the life course, mostly giving. If we recognise that fact, Britain is definitely not broken – and older people, the age group who keep on giving, emerge as the biggest ‘big citizens’ of all: the social superglue of Britain.
Dr Jane Pilcher is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Leicester. Her publications include Age and Generation in Modern Britain (Oxford University Press), as well as other books and journal articles focusing on childhood, youth, generations and gender. For more information, visit www.janepilcher.me.uk. You can also follow Jane’s sociology blog on Twitter.