Ageing in an age of uncertainty – the need for flexibility in robust policy-making and the 2017 Budget

The length of time we expect to live is a key consideration for public policy from healthcare to house-building. Last week the ONS released their latest national population projections, and while there were familiar messages – the UK population is growing and there will be an increasing proportion of older people – within in the detail were some important changes in mortality assumptions.

Compared to the 2015 projections there are projected to be 460,000 fewer (-8%) people over 80 in 2037, 20 years from now, living in the UK. But can this be right? I thought the first potential 1,000-year-olds are being born now? Researchers and commentators disagree on future life expectancy but all are clear that it is highly uncertain.

In the 2017 budget 22nd November I would ask the chancellor and the new government to consider the longer-term and reflect this uncertainty and propose policies beyond token tinkering with stamp duty and second-home-ownership. 

The week after the budget you can join the International Longevity Centre and other experts at the Future of Ageing Conference 29th November 2017 to find out more and have your voice heard.

So what’s new behind the latest ONS projections?

Compared to the previous release there are projected to be 460,000 fewer (-8%) people over 80 by 2037:

This change is due to new assumptions about future life expectancy – that it will be lower than previously thought. Life expectancy in the UK increased steadily from 1980 to 2011 (70.8 to 78.4 for men, and 76.8 yers to 82.4 for women), but since 2011 the rate of increase in life expectancy has halved:

The reason the ONS give for this include that some factors that previously drove growth in life expectancy, such as smoking reduction, may largely have been realised. This means that, based on analysis of past data and expert advice, the ONS project improvements in mortality to be lower than previously thought and experienced, shown rather beautifully in Figure 4.1 and 4.2 in the mortality methodology paper. I.e. we may not live as long as we previously thought!

But what do others say?

Generally we tend to hear reasons for why we will live even longer. These include technological advance, improvements in healthcare practice and better healthy behaviours.

Professor Rudi Westendorp Professor of Old-Age Medicine at the University of Copenhagen, believes that current conceptions of ageing are all in the mind and that if recent rates continue, people born today may live to be 135.

At the extreme end, Cambridge researcher Aubrey de Grey believes aging is a curable disease and that the first people to live to 1,000 may be being born today:


Message for public policy and the 2017 Budget

As Kontis et al 2017 note in the Lancet, life expectancy is a key assumption in public policy as it affects:

  • Old Age Dependency Ratio (OADR)
  • demand for health and social care
  • number of houses needed
  • the nature of our communities and society
  • Pension expenditure and other political issues…

Given clear uncertainty in future mortality and life expectancy, governments and decision makers need to deal responsibly with this uncertainty. The complexity and the cost of mistakes are higher than ever (Rand 2006). Long-term UK policies such as future retirement age or the number of doctors starting a 15-year training programme, must therefore aim to be effective in a range of future outcomes.

In the upcoming budget I will be looking out for policies and plans that avoid pitfalls such as focussing on point estimates and single futures rather than ranges, pursue strict, inflexible axioms such as the pensions ‘tripple lock’, or offers of pseudo-security and bold claims.

If death is in fact uncertain, why mislead the public that future taxes and other policy levers are not?