Older people: the ‘big citizens’ and social superglue of British society?

Dr Jane Pilcher, Department of Sociology, University of Leicester:

Dr Jane PilcherBritain 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.


  1. Gil Gillespie
    Posted 07/06/2011 at 15:16 | Permalink

    I’m afraid to say you’ve grasped exactly the wrong end of this particular stick. The fact that old people make such a large unpaid contribution to British society is because they are acting as some kind of creaky Elastoplast to cover up the terrible failings of the most ultra-free market country in Europe.

    The elderly are the great unpaid, especially when it comes to the childcare of their grand children. And this is a problem unique to Britain. Subsidised childcare doesn’t exist in the UK. This is why grandparents step in to look after the little ones, not because of some heroic committment to making a better society. I know this because my parents have to look after my son. And give us ten grand to get a mortgage, again the most expensive in Europe.

    Old people’s hands on involvement in British life is out of economic neccesity, not good will on their part.

    And what’s wrong with retirement anyway? They’ve worked their whole lives and then they are suddenly told that they can’t retire until they’re 70. Go get a job in B&Q. Meanwhile, our privatised utility companies, multi-national company shareholders and the tax dodging super-rich sit back, do absolutely nothing much at all and get wealthier and wealthier. Hurray for OAPs, how else are we going to clear the snow!

    As a Sociologist, you should at least be aware of the social and economic factors that lead to the ‘involvement of old folk’ issue in the first place. Because you’re superglue rational is, quite frankly, laughable. Unsociological, in fact.

    There is nothing wrong about getting old or being old, hey it’s easy to be young but you won’t be there for very long, but the elderly are treated more appallingly in the UK than in Siberia. Take a look around you. At the inclusive attitudes of the Italians, or the protectionism of the French, or the open-mindedness of the German’s.

    You do know that more old people die from the cold in the UK every year than in Siberia. 30,000 a year and rising, in fact.

    A Sociologist claiming that Britain isn’t broken is a bit like a lumberjack walking into a dense forest somewhere in Canada and saying ‘so, where are these trees?’ The UK is not just broken, it is smashed and lying at the bottom of a desolate inner-city stairwell with blood coming out of its ears.

    And what do you do? You notice that they bleed just the same as people half their age.


  2. Kalwant Ajimal
    Posted 29/03/2011 at 23:04 | Permalink

    Britain is certainly not broken but our willpower is occasionally weakened by self doubt and when people insist on looking to others to solve problems which affect us all. We are a responsible society and we always help others who are less fortunate than us. You only have to look at our splendid record of supporting fundraising appeals whenever there is a natural disaster in any part of the world. However, does providing money for local and international causes absolve us as a society from other equally challenging responsibilities at home? What we need is a mechanism for pooling our goodwill for local causes and issues.

    Regrettably our voluntary sector is largely fragmented and its leaders mostly align themselves with ‘single issue’ campaigns. Is it then surprising that just under 10 percent of our charities account for well over 90 percent of national charitable funding? It is well known that the Lifeboats and other appeals for the welfare of seafaring people, which certainly deserve support, actually constitute the largest holders of charitable funds when most of the problems are associated with life in the inner city and mental health. How are we going to rebalance voluntary effort?


  3. Christopher
    Posted 21/03/2011 at 16:10 | Permalink

    There will always be people to volenteer who are older but there also needs to be a culture change in terms of “leading and learning by example”. I have now lived in the UK for 10 years and 30 years in New Zealand. My mother is in NZ and recently retired is always looking for volenteer work because she gets bored – no grand children.

    Older people are not seen as a nuisance in poorer cultures – why? They are revered as leaders and wise people.

    Here and in New Zealand there is a definite split between families as they see older people as no longer an integral part of the family but rather a pet which needs visiting, feeding and more and more care as they get older.

    Those who work find it challenging to spend time with the elderly persons in the family because there is a huge number of pressures. The 40 hr week is a factor, the pressures of young children are a factor. Does it not make sense that people abuse the system so they can look after their young and their old? “Survival first – patrotism and a social concience never considered”
    But culturally – is it not completely wrong to not bring the older members of the family back into the fold and look after them and learn from them? Teenagers actually love the elderly becasue they bring them back down to earth and realise that life is not always a struggle, perception is merely perception and vision is also eyesite and not a subconcious reality. The interaction between these two important parts of society will change a society very quickly. Life learning the way it should be.

    Teenagers should do volenteering to look after the elderly. Older people should do volenteering to teach, monitor and help the youth to respond better to tomorrow. Too much homework and tests only feeds teenagers with a one track existence. They like the past 3 generations will be selfish, poor leaders and unkind.


    Jane Pilcher Reply:

    I agree that more connections between older and younger people would be beneficial for both. There are groups who campaign on this issue. See for example, http://www.unitedforallages.com.


  4. Andrew
    Posted 20/03/2011 at 23:33 | Permalink

    I feel this (main piece) opinion conentrates on the basis of assumptions RE: the current Government (GOV). It is no secret that the (loosley distinguished) age group talked of here – have been of help to infinite generations and have relieved the state of billions of pounds over the years.

    To make my argument clear; Britain must adapt to the ageing population. Any suggestion that the current GOV is failing to do so is unfounded. I volunteer (CAB) ‘inter alia’ and have no political affiliations. To suggest that grand-parenting (for want of a better term) should be paid perplexes me, it is a natural and well established insitution of society.


  5. Posted 18/03/2011 at 09:42 | Permalink

    Britain is not broken, far from it. Yes, there is teenage crime and binge-drinking but this occurs on a regular basis in Melbourne too. Many of the social problems that have British politicians ringing their hands are all too familiar in Australia too. Melbourne is definitely NOT the world’s most liveable city anymore.


  6. Adrian
    Posted 16/03/2011 at 14:25 | Permalink

    Very thoughtful, balanced piece.

    The ill concieved and blatent lie of CaMoron’s “Big Society” cannot be built upon cuts, and a ‘divide an rule’ strategy that seeks to negatively reinforce and catergorise older people with the term “problem” or ‘population time bomb’. Each generation appears to blame the one before, or the one after them.
    Our society is splintered, if not broken, generations are segragated from one another.Extended family a thing of the past. Young and Old people alike are often, too often portrayed as a burden and a drain on societal resources. Whilst those in the middle appear to have an answer for most problems, but solutions for none. We do not listen to one another and the gap between the disengaged and the trapped increases.


  7. epinoa
    Posted 16/03/2011 at 04:11 | Permalink

    Having spent over 1/2 of my life abroad and recently returned to the UK I firmly believe that Britain is all talk and no do.


  8. DavidJones
    Posted 15/03/2011 at 08:28 | Permalink

    Judging by the activities, persuits and attitudes of many young people, our country is in potentially a very bad way. For many, their socialisation, conversational and reasoning ability is almost non existent thanks to the ubiquitous ipod and ignorant pop music direct into their ears 24/7. They have been abused since infancy by media brainwashing persuading them that unnatural and unhealthy activities like homosexuality and lesbianism are OK, that immigration, diversity and the multiracial society are OK and that so many of our traditions and much of our history is shameful. They may well have been carefully groomed for life as mongrelised slaves in a global village but in the long run it will not be in their and the nation’s best interest. Older people should cast of their dozy shell and go out to the community and preach to the young – “Youth is too precious commodity to be wasted on young people”.


  9. Posted 14/03/2011 at 22:53 | Permalink

    Britain is not broken, but there should be no doubt that Britain is politically fractured; culturally, economically, and socially.


    Hortic Reply:

    In other woods Robert broken.


  10. Chris Williams
    Posted 12/03/2011 at 10:25 | Permalink

    The reason many retired people volunteer is not merely altruistic but for a low cost social life combined with a wish to be of value. Also, they may have done so when young for the same reasons. I was married with a child at 20. I spent 5 years, without a holiday, saving to buy a dilapidated house and many more years renovating it. With no money to spare, my wife and I helped our elderly neighbours, the local special needs school, the residents association, the Samaritans and supported the charities that our neighbours were involved in by doing anything that did not cost us money, only time. You can have a wide social life at very little expense that way and it keeps you children occupied delving leaflets, sorting jumble, baking cakes, charitable walks or just playing with you neighbours’ children whilst you organise events.

    With our children grown up and rising careers we spent far too much of our new found wealth selfishly seeing the world, so in retirement we will have to return to voluntary work for our social life. If, like the current generation, and even our own children’s generation, we had more money and married later we would not have been part of the “good society”. We were no more altruistic than the next person. It was poverty (relative) not the wealth of our over inflated house prices that made us good citizens.


  11. James T
    Posted 11/03/2011 at 21:58 | Permalink

    Hmmm. Interesting piece.

    This country has recently experienced the largest period of asset appreciation in living memory. According to Nationwide, house prices have tripled in a decade. Now whilst it would be churlish to “blame” anyone for that (bar perhaps the Daily Express and Kirsty Allsop), it’s certainly left new graduates and young families with an impossible task and many years of rental ahead of them.

    Government policy now seems intent on:

    Sustaining house prices at current levels through low interest rates
    Protecting the NHS budget as much as possible
    Increasing tuition fees for young people
    Removing decent pensions from anyone born after 1960

    Meanwhile, we’re told it’s a crime someone might have to sell their over-appreciated house to fund social care.

    But it’s ok to scrap the EMA which will throw 16 year olds on the scrap heap (whilst interestingly maintaining free bus passes regardless of income for pensioners).

    As the brave war generation ages and passes on, and tomorrow’s pensioners are increasingly drawn from the consumerist baby boom generation, you can see why tomorrow’s tax payers might be a bit p*ssed off.


    Chris Williams Reply:

    Tax payers are always p:ssed off but whist some of what you say is true there is another side. 16 year olds who work hard are in full time education at the state’s expense. Twenty year olds who who save their money have bought a flat or even a house before they are thirty. If you have a good time when you are young then, barring Granny’s bequest, you rent. The choice is yours.


    Gordon Marr Reply:

    I worked from the age of 15 to 67 and paid contributions in to the system I am now informed that my contributions are maintaining beggars that we have imported from abroad.They go under the terms such as asylum seekers,refugees and illegal immigrants they are everywhere and they commit a lot more crimes than the natives.Nobody is deported and if you complain about harassment from a beggar your are liable to be arrested for racism if you refer to their ethnic background. UK is well and truly broken and cannot be repaired I am now going to live in an African country that is considered as third world as is UK


  12. ernie
    Posted 11/03/2011 at 18:28 | Permalink

    Can any person tell me how much we are in debt and who do we owe the money to?


    Chris Williams Reply:

    There are two views on this
    1. Rather a lot and the Chinese
    2. Quite a bit and you and me

    I want my money back


    Jane Pilcher Reply:

    A good, clear explanation of the fiscal crisis is John Lanchester’s Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, published by Penguin.


  13. Imelda
    Posted 11/03/2011 at 00:59 | Permalink

    Absolutely agree with this and share concerns about the ‘cohort’ effect. An era of more visible anti-ageist policies seems to be accompanied by overt, smug, ageism by those in power, and an absurd fear of and ignorance about the ageing process.


  14. Posted 10/03/2011 at 18:58 | Permalink

    One irony is that raising the pension age, from 60 to 65 for women, and 65-68 for all thereafter, will make a severe dent in this voluntarism. There just wont be the same number of active retirees available, so who will fill this gap?


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