Michael Clifford: Age is just a number but it keeps adding up

Is the country destined to wait until the challenges of aging morph into a crisis before action is even contemplated, asks Michael Clifford

Michael Clifford: Age is just a number but it keeps adding up

TOMORROW Never Knows’ (The Beatles). ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow? (Carole King). ‘When Tomorrow Comes’ (The Eurythmics). ‘If Tomorrow Never Comes’ (Garth Brooks).

In song, as can be seen above, tomorrow is somewhere out there, unwritten, a big question mark, a long, long way from today.

Art has licence to cast tomorrow as a different country.

Unfortunately the body politic believes that it has acquired rights to the same licence.

For most politicians, tomorrow is beyond the next election, out there in a country that doesn’t yet exist.

For recognising tomorrow could mean some painful decisions today and why would you bother.

Tomorrow was high on the agenda at Croke Park last Tuesday.

The occasion was the annual policy conference of Social Justice Ireland.

This is the kind of forum at which the future is discussed in order to fashion policies that will cater for the country in the coming years.

Did you know that there are now more adult nappies sold in Japan than baby nappies? Scary fact, but that’s the way the world is going. The most developed countries are rapidly aging and, so far, there has been little effort to plan what to do about it.

James Hegarty is a statistician with the CSO who can predict with some accuracy how the population of this country will change in the coming years.

His forecast is that by 2051 there will be an extra 1.7m people living in Ireland.

Currently, there are 690,000 people over the age of 65. In 32 years time this cohort will rise to 1.6m.

The number of those over 80 years of age will increase by 270%.

Mr Hegarty laid out how this will affect demographics. “The increase in the older population will be accompanied by a reduction in the percentage share of the working age population and increased dependency ratios. At present there are around 5 persons of working age for each person aged 65 and over.

“By 2051, the equivalent figure is projected to be around 2.5.”

The projections for the rise in population also takes account of immigration.

The two models used by Mr Hegarty considered figures of 20,000 and 30,000 per annum for numbers coming into the country. This includes Irish people returning home after a period abroad.

Mr Hegarty confirmed that practically all this inward migration would be directly contributing to the workforce, adding to the cohort that will be required to support the increasing numbers of those whose working lives will be over or not yet begun.

This should be a wake-up call for anybody who pays the slightest bit of attention to the virulent anti-immigrant sentiment that has been the focus of public attention in recent months. This country needs immigrants to ease the growing dependency on a shrinking workforce.

These figures are stark but Ireland is far from the worst in terms of aging. For that reason there is time to plan, particularly in how to cater for the growing cohort of those who will be living for a long period after their working lives finish. And that is even taking into account that the pensionable age will continue to rise towards 70.

So how is the planning going? Terrible really. Public policy supports the care of elderly people in the home.

This makes perfect sense, socially and economically. Nobody wants to leave their home. Yet, as with other areas, the stated policy and the operation of the policy diverge greatly. Sean Moynihan, the chief executive of Alone, the agency that represents older people, told the conference that there were 900 less home care packages for elderly people this year than last.

“Yet government policy for twenty years has been to promote aging at home,” he said.

As the numbers begin to inch upwards, it would appear that instead of solidifying the policy of aging at home the approach is to quietly shift some resources away in order to plug gaps elsewhere in the health service.

Housing will present a myriad of problems as the population embarks on its steep climb. James Hegarty told the conference that in 2006 the average age of a person buying their first home was 28. By 2016 this had risen to 35.

Michael Clifford: Age is just a number but it keeps adding up

There will, in the coming years, inevitably be a burgeoning cohort of people who don’t own their own home when they retire. How will they pay for rent at a time of life when pensioners have always been free of that kind of burden?

Where will everybody live?

Rebuilding Ireland, the government’s bright, shining plan to alleviate the housing crisis is certainly not the answer.

Research and policy analyst with Social Justice Ireland, Colette Bennett, said on Tuesday that the plan wasn’t even keeping up with the current crisis not to mind addressing what is coming down the line.

“Since the introduction of Rebuilding Ireland homelessness in general has increased by 59% and family homelessness has increased by 55%.

“Homelessness is becoming normalised in our society,” she said.

Addressing the long-term challenges would take a sea change in attitude.

Despite the conspicuous prosperity in some quarters many sections of society continue to have urgent demands on the state’s coffers.

In such a milieu it would take courage and foresight to plan ahead rather than focusing all energies and resources on the problems of today.

We only need to look at the current climate change crisis to see what happens when tomorrow is long fingered week in, week out.

The problem was signalled twenty years ago and has been continually ignored because any action would require some pain.

The traditional model for growth would have had to be disrupted. \\There would have had to be acceptance that standards of living could no longer continue to rise under that model. Who was going to tell people that?

Only now, with the catastrophe looming, and having already arrived in some corners of the developing world, are governments getting around to at least attempting to address the problem.

Pressure to do so has come from the ground up. Without that pressure it is quite possible that governments would continue to claim that everything is alright, at least until the next election.

Is the country destined to wait until the challenges of aging morph into a crisis before action is even contemplated?

As the Social Justice Ireland conference outlined the future can be forecast with some accuracy.

Nobody can ever claim that this was not seen coming.

But the reality is that those who govern today will be long gone – most likely retired on generous pensions – when the time of reckoning comes around.

There is room to debate how best to tackle what the future holds.

The question really is whether there is any stomach in the body politic to even acknowledge that their actions, or inactions, today will have serious consequences for future generations.

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