The North/South divide in healthy old age
In 1979 pop singer Debbie Harry suggested her preferred life pattern was “Die Young, Stay Pretty”.
Ms Harry, as part of the band Blondie, has blithely ignored her own advice and is pumping out records and touring more than three decades later.
However, her focus on healthy life expectancy, rather than merely longevity is useful when thinking about forthcoming debates about the state pension age and the impetus for older people to remain in the workforce.
It is particularly relevant to a report published this week by the Government Office for Science (I imagined bubbling cauldrons, the reality seems to be lots of spreadsheets), which warns that inequalities in healthy life expectancy threaten the government’s aim to keep older people in the workforce for longer.
Recent figures for disability-free life expectancy “suggest there are particular regions of England where extending working lives will be a challenge,” the report’s author Carol Jagger notes, “as on average men and women already have an onset of activity limitation by age 65”.
The North/South divide is particularly stark. In the North East of England every single local authority has a disability-free life expectancy of less than 65 years. It is the same for the overwhelming majority of councils in North West England and Yorkshire and the Humber.
Differences in health expectancies between different parts of the country are larger than inequalities in life expectancy and are widening.
Yet in the UK plans to extend State Pension Age to age 68 are already put in train and a review in 2017 could lead to further increases.
Life expectancy has soared in most countries thanks to success in tackling infectious diseases that were the main cause of death. But now chronic diseases , which reduce the quality of life in later age, are the leading cause of death.
Increases in healthy life expectancy are not keeping pace with improvements in life expectancy. For instance, the life expectancy of women at birth increased by 1.3 years between 2005 and 2010, while the number of years spent without disability only increased by little more than a month.
What is particularly interesting, and challenging for policy makers across the political spectrum, is that the North/South divide in disability-free life expectancy, cannot just be explained by greater deprivation in the North.
According to the report Trends in Life Expectancy and Healthy Life Expectancy, people living in southern areas with equally high levels of deprivation as northern ones have five additional healthy years.
This North/South divide disappears by age 85. By then other divisions, notably an urban/rural split, open up.
We have yet to discover the musical tastes of our own Pensions Minister, but we know that she is a champion of longer, or in government parlance “fuller”, working lives.
Baroness Altmann’s efforts to make sure that workplaces are equipped to retain those older people who wish to continue working is a very valuable one. And there is evidence to show that some older people benefit from improved physical and mental health from continuing working.
But this research suggests that this doesn’t mean we can keep on pushing up the State Pension Age and expect everyone to stay in work to fill the gap.
A review of State Pension Age is due in 2017. Growing evidence of great divides in longevity and healthy life expectancy is strengthening the case for a proper commission to look at all the evidence and possible policy solutions. The Pension Commission model, that featured all the social partners, could help to build a new consensus on how our society wants to deal with trends in ageing.
We can’t all top up our pensions with stadium tours in our late 60s.