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Taking a positive view on ageing: making the most of the latest data on the older population

Posted on 20 June 2018 by Kirby Swales, Director of Survey Research Centre .
Tags: Ageing, ELSA, English Longitudinal Study of Ageing

‘Ageing’ is never far from the news. There is regular commentary about the need to challenge ageism in our society and prepare for additional costs on the welfare state. However, we know vanishingly little about what older people themselves actually think of themselves and their experiences.

The long standing English Longitudinal Study of Ageing has just released its latest data (from Wave 8 of the study). This shows that six in ten older people feel that ageing has been a positive experience, with three in ten saying it is neutral (see Figure 1). A relatively small minority (7%) say that it as an outright negative process for them. This is somewhat at odds with the everyday fears that ageing is associated with ill-health, loneliness and poverty.

Experiences of ageing are far from uniform, and inequalities in the process of ageing are rightly a major focus of study and policy. Indeed, it is only amongst the older age groups where income inequality is actually increasing . As one expert has put it, in a powerful recent article – ‘the core conclusion from this massive body of recent research is that, while ageing is inevitable, it is also malleable’.  This illustrated in these topline estimates, for example with more wealthy older people being much more likely to report ageing as a positive experience.   

Fig 1: Whether positive or negative about own experience of ageing by wealth

Kirby ELSA Blog Chart 1

Source: English Longitudinal Study of Ageing Wave 8 (all of those over 50)

Some of the other attitudinal information in the dataset below highlights the range of issues that are very relevant to ageing (see Figure 2). They illustrate some similarly positive perspectives but also that people think, perhaps inevitably, their activities will become more limited. It is also striking that there is a clear sense that older people don’t get enough respect.

Fig 2: What do people think about ageing?

Kirby ELSA Blog Chart 2

Source: English Longitudinal Study of Ageing Wave 8 (all of those over 50)

The ELSA Wave 8 survey provides data on more that than 7,200 core sample members. Almost 3,500 of these have taken part in all eight waves of the survey since 2002. ELSA gathers comprehensive information on peoples’ health, employment, income, wealth and social activities. It also includes the collection of bio-marker and some researchers are able to access hospital episode, cancer, mortality and social security data. Wave 9 of the survey is shortly going to start, adding even more power to the value of the data held, and the inclusion of new younger members will help keep the sample representative.

Research on ageing is going to be of increasing importance, and use of ELSA and related datasets will greatly help with this endeavour. This research may have more reach and impact if we collectively build on the positives rather than focus on the negative.

In terms of the practicalities, the data is available at UKDS, and documentation is there and on the ELSA website. The NatCen team can also arrange tables to be produced.

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