Grey Britain

The ageing of the UK population

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The UK’s population is both larger and older than it was a hundred years ago, and most of the difference in size is due to an increase in the older population.

Between 1901 and 2010, the population under 40 increased only modestly, from 28.5m to 31.5m. But over the same period, the number of people aged 40 and older has more than trebled, from 9.7m to 30.8m.

Among the over 65s, the increase has been still more dramatic. Around 5% of the population was aged 65 and older in 1901, compared with 17% in 2010. The proportion of the population in this age group is projected to rise to 23% by 2035. There is considerable regional variation in the distribution of the older population. In West Somerset, around 30% of the population is aged 65 and older. In Tower Hamlets it’s just 6%.

The increasing number and proportion of older people in the population reflects increasing life expectancy. This has been rising since 1800, although the largest gains were made during the 20th century. In 1901 life expectancy at birth was around 45 for men and 49 for women. By 1951 it had increased to 66 for men and 70 for women, implying an extra year of life expectancy, on average, for every 30 months that went by.

In the first half of the 20th century, the increase in life expectancy at birth was mainly driven by improvements in infant and child mortality.

The rate at which life expectancy increased slowed down in the second half of the 20th century, when the medical improvements driving the increase shifted from improvements in infant health to improvements in adult health. By 2010 life expectancy at birth was 78 for men and 82 for women.

Further improvements in life expectancy are anticipated in future years although it is expected that the rate at which it has been increasing will continue to decline. Around a third of children born in 2012 are expected to survive to celebrate their one hundredth birthday. Around 1% of those born in 1908 lived to 100.

From pyramid to arrow-head
The chart shows the age-structure of the UK population in 1901 and 2010.

The chart shows the age-structure of the UK population in 1901 and 2010

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