A minister for older people would be a victory for all generations

Intergenerational squabbling over housing is missing the point, all generations should welcome the Commons’ decision



“This isn’t about pitting old against young,” said Anchor chief executive Jane Ashcroft

With the media drawing battle lines between young and old, last week’s vote in the Commons urging the government to consider appointing a minister for older people could be seen as a victory for the greys.

The debate, prompted by a 137,000-strong petition presented to Number 10 in November, follows increasingly frenzied reporting about which generation is faring the worst in the economic crisis. But, as attendees at a Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) consultation on housing policies for all generations heard, such intergenerational squabbling is missing the point.

The consultation, a result of a partnership between St George’s House and the JRF, brought together senior figures to consider what a fair housing deal across the generations would look like.

Projections of a further 5.5 million elderly people in 20 years’ time coupled with the current global economic climate mean challenges for all generations in a multitude of areas. But it is in housing that the challenge is most stark.

The media has fuelled intergenerational tensions resulting from older people “under-occupying” homes they own while many younger people are unable to get onto the property ladder. For some, this indicates a breakdown in the contract between the generations – baby boomers hoarding at the expense of the young.

Of course, this view is an oversimplification. A significant proportion of older people are not home owners and those who are are not necessarily well-housed. Perhaps more significantly though, it ignores the real contract that has been damaged; that between the individual and the state. With blurred definitions of social care, tighter state funding and rising incidences of dementia (largely deemed a social care issue) the concept of “cradle to grave” NHS healthcare is being eroded.

As Margot James MP told the Commons: “One of the toughest jobs of the minister for older people would be to manage the expectations of our older population now and of the general population as they approach old age.”

It has long been assumed that home ownership helps reduce housing costs later in life and provides an asset for the next generation. But increasingly unaffordable house prices, the resurgence of negative equity, house purchases made later in life and the increasing burden on individuals to fund social care challenge such assumptions.

Those older people who do have housing assets must increasingly rely on them to fund adequate care in later life. Yet many also want to help younger generations.

Aviva found that 41% of over-55s have helped their families and friends over the last year and more say they would help in the future. Typical financial assistance is 9% (£1,430) of their average annual income (£15,636).

Yet, as MPs in the debate on the appointment of a minister for older people heard, the cost of living has risen disproportionately for older generations, partly as a result of quantitative easing. At the same time, research from Policy Exchange has highlighted that barriers to employment mean unemployed people over 50 are less likely than any other age group to find work in the next year.

With the present model of home ownership under strain and young people increasingly marginalised in the housing market, we must find ways to better meet the housing needs of the UK population at each stage of a person’s life. Part of the solution is removing the barriers to developing appropriate specialist housing for older people. And if younger people aspire to ownership because of an assumption that property assets will fund old age, we can’t look at housing without also considering alternative ways to fund the costs associated with ageing, including reforming social care funding.

As shadow minister for care and older people Liz Kendall told the Commons: “Our ageing population is something that we should celebrate … However, our society has barely begun to understand the implications of this vast demographic change.”

Grey Pride campaigners are now looking to the government to act. Anchor chief executive Jane Ashcroft said after the debate: “This isn’t about pitting old against young. A minister for older people wouldn’t just help today’s older generation but would develop a comprehensive strategy to deal with demographic change so that today’s younger generations won’t have to face even bigger problems when they reach retirement age.”

Last week’s vote was a victory for today’s older people. Just as importantly though, it was a victory for the older people of tomorrow.



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