According to latest census figures from the Office of National Statistics 31% of those aged 65 and over are now living alone. Whilst these figures represent a fall from 34% as recorded in 2001, the previous census year, these figures reveal that more than a third of over-65s’ homes are classed as single occupancy.
Living alone, whilst good for some, can have serious repercussions. Age UK research reveals nearly 20% of older people suffer from isolation and corresponding mental health issues such as increased incidence of anxiety and depression. But single occupancy doesn’t just affect older people, it also affects other generations such as young people and families.
Simply put, successive governments of all political persuasions have failed, over the past 30 years, to build enough new homes. Lack of building has conspired with population ageing and population increase, resulting in not enough homes to go around. This lack of housing in turn impacts on prices, to the extent that owning a home is now out of reach for most young people. Today, the average length of time it takes people without parental help to save for a first home in London is now nearly 30 years, according to Shelter. The average age of a first time buyer is now 35 years of age. So whilst older generations are under-using their homes, younger generations are desperate for somewhere to live.
Young families need homes now
Why don’t we build more homes then? Proposals to build new homes in our villages, towns and cities are too often aggressively opposed by the “Not in My Back Yard” contingent. Rejecting new building locally may seem a rational decision in terms of protecting an asset but young families need homes now, probably about a million more.
So if we can’t build, won’t build, perhaps we need to use the housing stock we do have better? Research by the Intergenerational Foundation caused a national furore when it released figures showing that England alone has about 25 million unoccupied bedrooms. In other words, we have lots of space in our homes just not in the right configuration for the right people at the right life stage.
Research conducted by IF revealed that older generations want more communal space and fewer bedrooms but all too often can’t find the right homes to move into. The same research revealed that those people who had moved to smaller accommodation were liberated from the tyranny of upkeep. In other words, the demand is there, the problem is simply that builders and planners have not kept up with what older people want. The right home in the right location, close to amenities, close to public transport, with good insulation and low energy bills, would, according to IF research, get older generations on the move and downsizing could be part of the solution.
What’s missing is advice and guidance and IF has called on the government to create a ‘Downsizing Agency’ to help support older generations who want to move but need help.
There are other options too. Intergenerational living, where different generations live together in the same home, is good news for intergenerational relationships, good news for isolated, lonely older people and uses our housing stock better. The past three decades’ policies towards encouraging ‘independent living’ may well prove to have been a mistake for all generations.
Finally, Homeshare may well be a way forward, where, in exchange for a roof over their heads, young people provide companionship and undertake odd jobs around the home. It’s another win win solution: low rent for the young person, some company and a little extra help around the home for the older person.
By Angus Hanton