Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Older people as voters, citizens and changemakers
Article Type: Guest editorial From: Quality in Ageing and Older Adults, Volume 16, Issue 1.
A general election is a good time to review, reflect, and look forward. In the UK in 2015 this is particularly so, with both domestic politics and international affairs volatile and the election outcome difficult to predict. UK politics is moving from a traditional two party battle to multi-party politics with several potential alliances that make the election of another coalition government more likely on 7 May.
This special edition of Quality in Ageing and Older Adults takes the opportunity to consider the impact of the coalition government since 2010 on and for older people. It looks forward to the next government, whatever shape it takes, and what that government needs to do to improve life for older people and prepare for an ageing population in the UK.
I am very grateful to all the authors in this special edition. They come from a wide range of organisations concerned with ageing and older people's issues and are not typical contributors to this journal. What they do bring are insights from frontline practitioners, from older people and their organisations, and from policy shaping and influencing think tanks and charities. The papers are much more policy commentaries than academic research and they are in many cases shorter pieces than those usually contained in this journal.
Some clear themes emerge around intergenerational fairness in austerity and relations between the generations; the voices and contributions of older people; evidence of progress for older people and the scale of the challenges ahead, not least massive public spending cuts; failures to plan for an ageing population and the changing world of later life; and older people as voters, citizens and changemakers.
What is clear is that older people will have a substantial say in the make-up of the next government and its priorities. More than half those who will actually vote are likely to be aged over 60 as older people are much more likely to vote than their younger counterparts, particularly the youngest cohorts. But what does that mean in terms of the offers from political parties, what older people are looking for from the parties and how older people will actually vote? Are older people more concerned about their own future or that of their children, their grandchildren and increasingly their great-grandchildren?
This concern with the future shines through this edition. There is growing recognition that we must do much more to prepare for our ageing population. But as several articles demonstrate, we are still failing on several fronts despite some major reforms since 2010: from care and health to housing and heating. It is too early to assess the impact of the coalition government's pension reforms. Several authors suggest that our communities need to become much more age-friendly places, where people of all ages can interact.
There is a temptation to say that the answer to many of these issues lies with government at all levels but increasingly the state seems impotent or unable to act, either because of shifting ideologies or spending cuts or both. Localism is limited in what it can achieve in tough times but it can spark innovation. Can the voluntary sector step in as a real catalyst for change? Or will older people take power into their own hands as they work longer and expect more? Will older people's families accept what their relatives have often put up with? And will the politics of “nudge” with its indirect suggestions and positive reinforcement, rather than forced compliance, be enough to influence and change behaviour on a substantial scale?
Moving from being passive voters and recipients of services to becoming active citizens is crucial. We can all do more to get and stay fit, eat better, drink less, stop smoking, exercise our brains, keep active and involved beyond work, and maintain meaningful relationships. How much the state can do to make this happen is still subject to debate. Nudge will only encourage some people to change behaviour. And improving your finances and home will often require much more support than individuals are able to access themselves.
We need much more public attention and debate on what an active retirement means and the opportunities available to older people to contribute in later life – whether it's an extended working life or helping with your grandchildren's childcare or transforming your local community. That will also require training, development, and learning of new skills, together with better infrastructure such as transport and a vibrant voluntary sector.
But can we imagine a society that is increasingly shaped by older people themselves? Older people as voters and active citizens, as consumers and volunteers, and as changemakers?
It's this final role as changemakers where the biggest potential lies – a growing army of older people could change our society forever. They could consign ageism to the dustbin of history; they could change the image of older age and later life as a time to be enjoyed rather than endured, but also as a time to give, contribute and innovate; they could use their collective and individual power to shake up our public services and demand better, much better.
Every generation has changemakers but what we need are changemakers that act for all generations. As policymakers and the media try to pit generation against generation (as is happening in many countries not just the UK), we must not allow this “divide and rule” to succeed. We all have many common interests and concerns whatever our age.
What is certain is that the next government in the UK or other countries won’t be able to ignore the voices, views, and votes of older people. There is more data than ever about the impact of ageing, so ignorance is not an excuse. We need long-term action to make our society fit for ageing. Any attempt to control public spending is bound to fail without effective action to promote better ageing and limit the spiralling costs of our ageing population.
I hope this special edition provides you with ammunition and food for thought – not just for voting in 2015 but about what kind of societies we are creating for older people now and for future generations.
Director, based at United for All Ages and Good Care Guide, Norfolk, UK.