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Forever Indian Summer
Stuart Macdonald

Allow for a moment, if you will, the suspension of disbelief and picture the following scenario. It is normal to visit McDonald's which are staffed entirely by pensioners and to live in towns which are hemmed in by the steady drive for more golf courses and tennis courts - truly a bizarre victory for the green-belt. Any attempt to escape the meandering crowds of purple-rinsed shoppers on the local high street is confounded by the pedestrian pace of the elderly droves on the open road. It sounds like every young person's nightmare Sunday afternoon - except this one never ends. Alternatively, this may well represent something of a utopia; depending on your point of view. Unlikely as this all sounds, however, it could well be the future in the UK.

The advances in medicine and health care over the last few decades, particularly in the field of geriatrics, combined with ever-decreasing birth rates in the EU, mean that by the middle of this century, two-thirds of Europeans will be over sixty-five. In the UK alone, the number of people under forty will have fallen by 2.7 million in thirty year's time. These statistics and many like them are routinely debated in Brussels and London, yet their stated effects tend never to stretch beyond the mundanities of labour markets and state pensions requirements. In reality, however, the implications are infinitely more profound than a mere demographic shift, which interests only the most dedicated of statisticians.

Already the UK has witnessed the potential power of the 'grey vote', with pensioners marching to Downing Street to protest their anger at their treatment at the hands of Tony Blair and his government. The following Budget resulted in large concessions to a section of society, which had formerly been considered politically unimportant. This was accompanied by various protestations from Labour, that they had never discounted the more senior citizens of society and valued their contributions, past and present.

This leads to the question as to whether future governments may give serious consideration to raising the retirement threshold at which people are entitled to claim state pensions. This would temporarily protect Treasury revenues and more importantly, counter the growing threat of a severe tightening in the labour market, as labour supply struggles to meet market demand. However, the economic problems that are presented by this demographic shift will at best only be postponed by such measures. As older people will soon outnumber their younger counterparts in the EU by two to one, it could well become commonplace to find your grandparents working in the type of part-time jobs which are today the sole preserve of school children and students. It could be the case that their pensions are insufficient to meet their needs, or merely that they require something to occupy their leisure time. It would be interesting to note whether the 'grey party' (the Conservatives of course) allowed such exploitation to pass, or swallowed the potentially bitter pill of promoting in-migration of foreign labour.

One of the most immediate effects of a rapidly ageing population will be an increase in collective national leisure time. This will undoubtedly represent something of a boon for theatres, restaurants and museums; yet implicit in this assumption is a commensurate rise in disposable incomes. Not only will there be a greater proportion of older people in the UK, but the majority of them will be living longer and will therefore require their pensions to stretch that much further. Thus older people who had previously thought themselves free from the shackles of working life may be financially obliged to return to the labour force. The alternative is a higher rate of savings than is currently the case in most European countries, although Britain may benefit from its higher level of penetration of second pensions.

The cumulative effect of all of this will probably be to shift consumer demand in the UK heavily towards the needs of older people. Museums and theatres are obvious beneficiaries, yet other more interesting areas of demand could be higher education and international travel. Senior citizens will be healthy and active enough to be able to satisfy life-long cravings for increased knowledge and broadened horizons. No longer will the depths of the Student Union or the mysteries of the Andes be the sole preserve of sweaty youngsters - they will have to compete for space with the rising number of silver foxes, intent reliving their youth.

There are also other more fundamental social issues at stake, as a consequence of longer, active lives. The divorce rate in areas of Florida in the United States, has steadily risen over the last few years, as older people realise that a second flush of youth allows for something of a roving eye. Rather worryingly, this increased promiscuity has had the awful side effect of a growth in the number of AIDS victims, as older people fail to practice safe sex.

Thoughts such as these may concern readers young and old alike, yet this is merely the tip of the demographic iceberg. Rising National Insurance contributions and a higher retirement threshold are almost certain at some point in the near future. Other subsequent shifts in consumer patterns of demand are easily predicted; yet what of the diseases of old age such as terminal cancer, heart disease and strokes? Were medical advances to tame these mass killers within the next few decades, the projections as to the balance of European population would need to be revised upwards once more.

This piece has merely considered the situation of the current developed nations of Europe and North America. Were these patterns to be repeated on a global scale, then our planet would become very crowded indeed. What's the point of extended years when it is impossible to enjoy any benefits? It would be one long Indian summer that ultimately no-one would enjoy.

© Stuart Macdonald 2001

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