It’s International Older People’s Day, and I’ve been tweeting about our Nuffield Foundation funded project: Older people in England: the geography of challenges and opportunities. As Rich Pereira, Head of the Office for National Statistics Centre for Ageing and Demography pointed out, it is certainly a day to shine a light on the contributions of older people, and their needs. So why is this important?
The ageing of the population is all too often demonised as a looming crisis, a ticking time bomb. You only need to look to the tongue-in-cheek presentation of the work of demographers from Danny Dorling and Stuart Gietel-Basten’s (2018) opening pages to Why Demography Matters…
“Demography appears to promise more bombs and explosions than a Hollywood blockbuster… the demographic future is presented like Die Hard (and its four sequels), as an endless fight against explosion after explosion…”Dorling and Gietel-Basten (2018: 1)
Following up with the great line from Stephen Emmott’s account of population growth,
“I think we’re fucked”Emmott (2013)
But let us argue otherwise. Though it is, in many countries, inevitable that the population will age, if we reframe debates around not only the challenges that such an ageing will of course herald, but also the opportunities within that demographic, are we faced with a demographic dividend and not a demographic burden?
To do this, it is critical we move away from policy, public and media narrative that homogenises older people. There are some that champion this. Professor Tom Scharf frequently calls out adverts and images from news articles that perpetuate a homogenised view of frailty and suffering, particularly from those that should know better. More broadly, the current pandemic has sparked a lot of debate, particularly amongst gerontologists, as to how reframe ageing positively. Though these efforts are not new, they are perhaps gaining more traction as the ‘threat’ of an aged population becomes the reality of a shifted age-structure. So what can geographers bring to this debate, and these efforts to shift policy emphases away from vulnerability to opportunity?
The old adage that birds of a feather flock together underpins the field of geodemographics research, research that sets out to uncover generalities of particular places or to explore the geography of particular domains of interest, such as health (see Singleton and Spielman, 2014). As Singleton and Spielman (2014) explain, geodemographic classifications organise areas into categories that share similarities across multiple socioeconomic attributes. These classifications are then a valuable resource from which a range of policy insights – such as developing interventions or targeting services – can be gleaned. The classifications equip policy-makers, planners and service providers with an understanding of the features or characteristics of local populations in the areas in which they serve.
Such a tool, if developed to organise areas into categories according to attributes of the older people who live there, and indeed features of the local environment which are pertinent to the needs and opportunities of that older population, would then do much to shift policy emphases away from tropes of vulnerability.
Perhaps the easiest way to evidence how such a shift would arise, let’s take an example from the current pandemic. Policy responses to COVID-19 risk deepening and entrenching social, economic and health inequalities, as well as inequities in service planning, provision, and resources. Though we have increasingly seen a turn to more localised interventions, such as the various curfews and bans on household mixing across much of the North East and North West, policies still homogenise groups generalised as at risk. Older people are a prime example of this.
A geodemographic classification of older people would provide policy-makers with a detailed understanding of the social and spatial variation in the characteristics, behaviours and needs of their local older residents. As I argue with colleagues in a forthcoming opinion piece, this sort of sensitivity to the geography of our older population at a small area level is essential if we are to both channel resources and services to those most in need, and counter ageist narratives in policy and public debate.
We are developing a bespoke, multidimensional classification to capture the social and spatial heterogeneity of the older population in England. Drawing on a variety of data sources, spanning the Census to more novel data sources such as Access to Healthy Assets and Hazards, this classification will be built around a number of domains including: Socio-demographic; Health; Consumption; Digital; Mobility and Accessibility; Environment.
Once built, the resources will be freely available for anyone to download and use. Our tool will equip policy-makers, planners and service providers with the insights needed to effectively meet the needs of their local older population. It will highlight need, but also resilience, opportunity.
If you would like to be involved in helping to ensure we develop and deliver a meaningful tool, whether you are a policy maker, a service provider, an advocate, or someone who identifies as part of that older population we want to support, get in touch!