Kinship and family in an ageing society

Speech by The Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP


It’s a pleasure to be here tonight to celebrate the life and work of Michael Young.

Lord Young was a visionary of our time.

His approach to public service reform was a lesson to us all.

A lesson that we achieve far less from sitting in ivory towers drawing scientific conclusions on public policy…

…and far more from actually listening to ordinary people, understanding their problems, and proposing practical solutions.

I’m also very grateful to the Young Foundation and Grandparents Plus for arranging for me to be here tonight, and I congratulate them on reaching their 5th and 10th anniversaries respectively.

Both organisations are building an honourable legacy for Lord Young.

7 billionth person

I’d like to begin this evening by considering a remarkable fact.

Today, the United Nations announced the birth of the world’s 7 billionth person.

What is notable is that the world’s 6 billionth person - Adnan Mevic of Sarajevo, Bosnia - has only just celebrated his twelfth birthday.

So that’s an extra one billion people in the world, within a space of just over a decade.

Compare that to the fact that it took 250,000 years to reach 1 billion people in around 1800, and over a century more to reach 2 billion in 1927.

The huge population growth we’ve seen in recent decades has given rise to some incredibly young societies.

Take Zambia, where half of the population are under the age of 16.

But there is another side to this story.

For while countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have been getting progressively younger, societies in the West have been ageing at a tremendous rate.

Ageing population

In the last century or so the UK has seen a surge in the retired population relative to those in work.

So back in 1926 - when the State Pension age was first set - we had some nine people of working age for every pensioner.

Today, that ratio is just 3:1, and it will be moving closer to 2:1 by the second half of this century.  

Sitting behind this shift are declining fertility rates and huge improvements in medical science, pushing life expectancy inexorably upwards.

Take the fact that a baby boy born today has a one in four chance of making it to 100.

The chance of a baby girl making it to 100 is one in three.

Young versus old societies

In the press coverage of the UN’s Population Report there have been a number of contrasts drawn between these younger and older societies.

When discussing the younger societies, the talk was a “demographic dividend” - a chance for high investment and growth on the back of a young workforce, as long as the right conditions can be fostered.

But when focus turned to the ageing societies the “dividend” became a “liability”, with foreboding descriptions of “disproportionately more old people depending upon a smaller generation behind them”.

This was followed by statistics about how many “dependents” western societies would have in relation to the number of working-age adults.

Ageing challenge

Now I am the first to accept that we face a demographic challenge.

Age-related spending currently accounts for some 12 per cent of GDP, and is projected to grow by around 5 per cent of GDP by 2060.**

And I’m certainly concerned for the next generation - a generation that will have to foot the bill for a crippling national debt, at the same time as helping to pay for their parents retirement and trying to save for their own.

But if we continue to use the language of “dependency” to talk about older people in our society then we will get nowhere.

As Michael Young recognised, we miss the point when we arbitrarily cut the life-cycle into standard segments, with:

“People turned into numbers and the galaxy of differences between individuals deliberately ignored.”

We have to look at how we can change things so that older people are no longer seen as a liability, but are more and more involved in society…

…changing the attitudes that push them to the sidelines…

…and recognising the vital roles they must play in the future.

Working longer

So we need to change our attitude to ageing.

Someone of 60 or 65 can no longer be lazily considered as “past it” - such attitudes are patronising and just plain wrong.

When I arrived in the Department, British business could still force someone to retire at 65 even if they didn’t want to.

This process was called the Default Retirement Age.

It led to lazy business practices and a failure to find out how best to use the talent and experience of an older workforce.

As Young eloquently put it, this provision meant that:

“When the clock strikes sixty-five, the   magic wand of the State turns not coachmen into mice but men into old men…[with] no transition. When the wand is waved millions of people have at once to obey”.

Well I am enormously proud that this Coalition Government acted on Young’s admonition and finally consigned the Default Retirement Age to the dustbin of historical discrimination.

But that is only the start.

We need businesses to stop thinking of old people as having a “sell by date”, and to look more closely at the skills and experience they bring with them.

At my Department we’ve been working with employers and employer organisations through the Age Positive initiative, challenging outdated assumptions about older people.

There certainly seems to be a trend in the right direction - the past decade has seen the age at which people leave the labour market increase.

And this is likely to continue, especially once you factor in the changes we’re making to the State Pension age - changes that are difficult but necessary, given how much life expectancy has changed since the State Pension age was first set.

But to keep all of these changes on track, we have to challenge the damaging claim that older workers block employment opportunities for young people.

This is a fallacy, based on the idea that there is a fixed amount of work available in the economy.

In actual fact, evidence from both the UK and abroad suggests that this is far from the case, and that having more people in work is likely to increase the availability of jobs through the effect it has on growth.


Nonetheless, I wonder if there is more society could do to match the work of younger and older people.

For example could UK businesses look more intelligently at sharing work between older people…

…who may be looking to do fewer hours…

…and the young, who are keen to start getting some experience?

I understand that Germany has some experience with intergenerational mentoring, where older people work with young school leavers to help them find their way into employment. 

I leave this to the social innovators out there - the Michael Youngs of today - to think about some more.

Older people caring

But this isn’t all about work.

Far from simply being members of the labour force, the role that older people can - and in many cases do - play in wider society, is enormous.

Whether it be volunteering, providing social care, or looking after grandchildren, we all gain hugely from the time and commitment that many older people give.

We ignore this at our peril.

Though the vast majority of older people give their time willingly…

…and indeed get great pleasure out of doing so…

…we should not forget that many of the jobs they undertake would otherwise fall on the state.

This is family doing what family does best - quietly, with great commitment, carrying out its duties.

But I’ve long believed that the state has become ambivalent about the importance of family structure.

Not just decent parenting but also the role of the extended family.

In an increasingly atomised society, and in a context of growing family breakdown, it is all the more important that we continue to support, celebrate and hold together these wider relationships.

Without them society would simply collapse.

So far from older people being “dependents” supported by the rest of us, it is worth reminding ourselves of the extent to which society is dependent on them.

The economic backdrop

As a country we face an immense economic challenge at the moment.

Sorting out our huge budget deficit and paying off our enormous debt is a priority if we are to restore growth at a sustainable level.

But we also need to recognise that this isn’t all just about economics.

It is also about how families can support each other so that they can take advantage of any work opportunities in the future.

Where possible we’ve tried to design our reforms so that they make this kind of support and caring easier and encourage it where it matters most.

Grandparent Credits and Childcare

This is something my colleagues at the Department for Health and the Department for Education have been working on carefully, from investing money in short breaks for carers to improving GP awareness of carer issues.

And at my Department one of the first changes we made on coming into Government was the introduction of ‘Grandparents Credits’, meaning that those below State Pension age can start building up credits for a State Pension if they are caring for young children rather than working.

This is about recognising the hugely valuable contribution this kind of caring makes to many children’s lives.

I also believe we’ve managed to strike an important balance with Childcare Support through the benefits system.

When we introduce the Universal Credit we’ll be saying - for the first time - that working parents can get help with their childcare costs even when they are working fewer than 16 hours a week.

This is about saying that it should pay to go back to work no matter how many hours you do - and I hope it has the potential to ease childcare responsibilities for the extended family as well as for parents.

Kinship care and conditionality

Another issue that I know has been raised is the conditionality regime in the benefits system.

Kinship carers accessing the benefit system under the new system will fall under the same conditionality rules as biological parents.

But, crucially, there is the flexibility available for the Jobcentre to take their particular circumstances into account.

We want kinship carers to be looked at on a case by case basis.

And the Jobcentre absolutely has the power - indeed the responsibility - to not impose full-time work search and availability requirements on carers of younger children.

There are specific safeguards on this in the Welfare Reform Bill.

Even where work-related requirements do apply, advisers will have broad discretion to limit these, taking account of an individual’s caring responsibilities.

So I hope this strikes the right balance.

But I’m always willing to listen on this kind of thing - and we’re currently talking to kinship care organisations to understand their priorities.

I’ve specifically asked my colleague Lord Freud to look at the kinship carer issue…

…as we have been approached by a number of people on this.

Not just about government

But none of this is just about what government can do.

As I think Michael Young would have agreed, most of the best ideas in the world come from outside Government.

I understand Lord Young pioneered a venture called LinkAge, bringing together older people without grandchildren, and young people without grandparents.

My own colleague Lord Freud has been personally involved for a number of years now with a very similar project known as Grandmentors - something he helped to set up.

And the organisation I founded - the Centre for Social Justice - recently gave an award to a project in Liverpool called ‘Growing Old Together’ which takes young people into care homes and sheltered housing schemes to spend time with the residents and build relationships with them.

This brings me back to the point about atomisation - projects like these can help reconnect the stretched relationships we find in an increasingly mobile and fluid society.

But remember that these important projects have been driven largely from outside Government.

Out there, in our local communities…

…and amongst our social innovators…

…are where the real change will happen.

The change we need if we’re to move from viewing our older people as dependents, to seeing them as one of the lynchpins of our society.

Ageing Well

I’m pleased to say this is something my Department have started to understand.  

When we came in to government we launched the Ageing Well programme, which is about driving better services for older people at a local level.

Although this programme was already being considered when we entered government, we were insistent that it needed to be reconfigured so that it drew much more from local knowledge and expertise.

The Young Foundation has been playing a critical role in this project, and I thank them for their continued hard work.

Age Action Alliance

In addition to this we recently helped launch the Age Action Alliance…

…an ever-growing partnership of public, private and civil society organisations…

…which is taking forward a preventative, community based approach to improving the quality of life of the worst off older people.

This hardly involves central Government at all.

We provide a small secretariat, but that is really just facilitating the work of over one hundred organisations who know what works - including a number of those represented here tonight.


So these are some of the areas that we - and society at large - are working on.

But what is more important is that we recognise what each of these different projects means.

A rejection of the idea of older people as dependents, or a burden…

…and an acceptance that we will need to change our institutions to ensure this overarching narrative becomes a reality.

We need to redesign our retirement system so that older people are encouraged to work longer - and are able to do so if they want to.

We need to think hard about the way we recognise and reward caring, so that we don’t lose the invaluable support from friends and family that currently exists.

And we need to work more closely with local groups to redesign projects, products and services so that they are better suited to an older society - and one which is increasingly active.   

Lord Young once wrote about the UK as a society that has:

      “enjoyed a demographic revolution, even if it has not yet enjoyed it as much as [it] could”.

With the right changes…

…and a firm commitment…

…perhaps we can fulfil Lord Young’s vision…

…and start to enjoy our older society that little bit more.

In fact, maybe now is the time to say that this is the age of the older society.

Published 31 October 2011