Social drivers

The geography of ageing

By 2050, a quarter of the population in the UK will be aged 65 years or over. The UK population as a whole is ageing, but while rural and coastal areas in the country are ageing more quickly, cities like Nottingham and Newcastle are getting younger. These local differences in the pace and direction of population change have increased over time, so places are becoming more divergent. This has been driven by differences in birth rates and levels of migration from other parts of the UK and from other countries.

This increasing divergence has wide-ranging implications for local economies and service provision. Understanding the age profile of different areas and how these could evolve in the future is crucial to meeting local needs – particularly social care needs. The fact that a rising number of older people needing care tend to live in areas where there are fewer younger people who can provide it is a major challenge. By 2028, it is estimated that there will be a shortage of over 400,000 workers in social care and some places will be more affected than others.

An ageing population, a changing workforce

The growing number of older people has implications for the economy because of a rise in the demand for services and in state pensions. But increasingly people are working until later in life and continue to contribute economically. Most of the growth of economic activity at older ages is due to more women participating in the labour force, particularly at older ages (partly due to the increase of the Station Pension Age from age 60 to 65 for women since 2010) and working part-time.

The number of people over 70 in full or part-time employment has been rising year-on-year over the past decade, reaching almost half a million in 2019. This trend is likely to continue with the decline of defined-benefit pension schemes and the increase in life expectancy. More opportunities for flexible working and age-friendly practices will need to be developed to allow people to combine work with health and care needs or caring responsibilities. Organisations will also need to consider how changes in the workforce will impact on volunteering. While having to work longer may prevent people from volunteering, flexible working and gradual or phased retirement could encourage them to get involved.

A divided country?

The EU referendum results highlighted some stark divisions across the UK. There is strong evidence that Britain has become polarised, particularly in terms of people's views on Brexit. The number of people who strongly identify with a political party has fallen significantly, and is now far lower than the number who strongly identify with their side of the Brexit vote.

However, it is less clear that similar divisions exist across other issues facing the country with evidence suggesting that many aspects of attitudes and identity in the UK are converging rather than diverging. This is, for instance, the case for views on gender equality and same-sex relationships. There is also a great deal of agreement on policy priorities, such as the environment, health and social care, and poverty. Recent narratives have tended to focus on divisions, but the picture is more complex. While it’s important to acknowledge that polarisation around Brexit identities has in some cases had a negative impact on people’s relationships and social interactions, and may continue to do so in the future, what unites people shouldn’t be overlooked. This seems particularly important for charities that work on issues where there can be convergence around shared values and purpose. Charities will also need to think about equity, diversity and inclusion within their own organisations (including in terms of leadership and governance) to make sure they are representative of the communities they support. Campaigns such as #CharitySoWhite show that there is plenty of room for improvement.

Increasing social isolation

The latest version of Living Well Index, conducted by Sainsbury’s with Oxford Economics and Natcen, suggests a decrease in the country’s sense of wellbeing. The index looks at six broad areas: community connections, finances, relationships, health, lifestyle and environment.

The biggest year-on-year decline concerns social connections and relationships. It shows that the number of people socialising with friends or family has decreased over the past 12 months. The weakening of social connections was similarly reflected in a recent YouGov poll indicating that over a quarter (28%) of people across all ages said they had no one they would call a best friend and over one in ten (15%) said they had no close friends.

Changes in the way people connect and interact are likely to be linked to a range of factors such as greater geographical mobility or the ubiquity of digital communications and social media. Whatever the causes, there are concerns that these changes are leading to feelings of loneliness and anxiety. We know, for instance, that feeling lonely is less frequent among people who have stronger social networks, regularly chat to their neighbours, and consider they belong to their neighbourhood and that others in their local area can be trusted. The voluntary sector and volunteering can contribute to the prevention of social isolation and loneliness and support those who are socially isolated and lonely, by bringing people together and providing them with meaningful experiences that may strengthen their sense of connection and purpose. But there is still a stigma around loneliness that makes some people more difficult to reach.

A more decentralised world of ‘doing good’

There are some recurring messages in recent reflections on the changing nature of social action.[1]

  • There are multiple ways of ‘doing good’, people are spoilt for choice and charities certainly don’t have a monopoly.
  • More people want to get involved in decentralised and networked ways rather than through more formal organisations or structured schemes.
  • They are increasingly self-organising around causes and issues, often bypassing existing organisations.
  • They are seeking opportunities that build on what they can offer (eg their skills and experience) and align with the things that they care about and define who they are.
  • They prefer opportunities that are flexible and fit around what else might be happening in their lives.
  • They want to be able to start their involvement quickly, possibly because of changing expectations brought about by new technologies.
  • They want their involvement to be impactful and to contribute to their sense of connection or identity.

Organisations will need to consider these trends and how they might respond to them. Depending on their objectives and activities, but also on context, this could involve:

  • focusing on participation and facilitation rather than control and management
  • developing relationships with people to understand what makes them tick and how they might want to contribute, rather than expecting them to fit into existing roles
  • designing opportunities for experience that can evolve over time rather than for fixed or long-term roles
  • supporting and amplifying the efforts of individuals and networks.

How younger people get involved

These trends seem particularly relevant to how younger generations are engaging or want to engage. The Millennial Impact Report, which looks at 10 years’ worth of data and evidence on how millennials in the US interact with social causes and issues, highlights that:

  • millennials want to embed engagement in their everyday life and believe in the power of small actions such as buying an ethical product or signing a petition that can contribute to something bigger
  • they are distrustful of traditional politics but believe in the need for social change
  • they are cause-led and ‘sector agnostic’, so open to getting involved in multiple initiatives with the same goal, whether these are led by charities, public sector organisations, corporates or individuals
  • peers play a critical role in millennials’ engagement: they influence their choice of causes to support and are mobilised through the extensive use of social media.

Climate change and activism

One area where young people’s activism has been very visible is in the climate change movement. Last year saw protests around the world, largely inspired by teenager Greta Thunberg. A survey in 13 European cities on the protests of 15 March 2019 shows that there was an over-representation of young people, a strong female presence, and of first-time participants a significant use of social media and peer networks. There was also limited engagement in well-known environmental organisations, but a significant investment in ‘lifestyle politics’[2] linked to consumer choices (eg veganism).

Concern over the environment is widespread and at its highest level since 2010. Over a quarter (27%) of Britons now cite the environment in their top three issues facing the country, putting it behind only Brexit (67%) and health (32%). This is higher still for 18 to 24 year olds (45%). Environmental issues are already a powerful driver for social action and that will likely continue in the years to come. The sense of urgency to find solutions to these challenges is encouraging people to mobilise through a range of initiatives, including at the local level with, for example, energy projects owned and operated by communities, or the development of ‘repair cafes’ and community fridges to help prevent waste. Such initiatives are likely to get more support from trusts and foundations in coming years.[3]

There will also be more pressure on all charities to demonstrate that they are reducing their environmental footprint. This may lead to more organisations seeking certification services that recognise achievements in environmental sustainability. Changes in the workplace might, for example, involve:

  • encouraging employees to cycle to work or car share
  • avoiding single-use plastic
  • shutting down office computers in the evenings and weekends
  • holding virtual meetings.

Moving forward

Questions your organisation might want to consider:

  • Does your organisation know the age profile of the areas it is working in?
  • Have you thought about the impact an ageing population will have on your activities and services as well as on your workforce and volunteers? How will you adapt your policies to reflect the needs and wellbeing of older people?
  • By working in equal partnership with communities, can you help local people to come together around shared values and purpose?
  • What does equity, diversity and inclusion mean for your organisation in terms of leadership, governance, workforce, volunteering and the services you provide?
  • Are your activities reaching people who may be isolated? Have you considered how feelings of loneliness might vary according to age group?
  • How might your organisation engage and support people who are keen to be active but want to get involved on their own terms?
  • How can your organisation contribute to tackling climate change? What actions does it need to take to improve its environmental footprint?


  1. There are different definitions for this term, here it means the belief that individual lifestyle changes, especially those linked consumer choices, can have a positive impact