Lessons can be learned from environmental activists in attracting serious attention
What keeps you awake at night? This is a question opinion pollsters at Ipsos Mori have been asking for decades and share the findings of in their monthly Issues Index. It offers a fascinating insight into the minds of the public. According to the latest index, Brexit tops our worry list, with 68 per cent of adults ranking it as a major issue. The NHS and crime come second and third.
Back in 2011, our ageing population was added to the index. Then, just 4 per cent viewed it as a big issue. It was ranked 22nd on our list of 35 worries, sitting above bird flu, below petrol prices and beside the environment.
The ranking of ageing next to the environment is interesting. Both are now accepted to be sources of significant challenge for society in the years to come. At the same time, both are long-term issues that struggle to find resolution in our short-term electoral cycle. The temptation to leave tomorrow’s problems for tomorrow’s people is great. But the scale of tomorrow’s problems is huge. With regards to our ageing population, the increased costs of pensions, healthcare and social care are identified as key factors in the Office for Budget Responsibility’s projected £172bn increase in annual public spending over the next 50 years.
To put this into context, £172bn is more than the government currently spends each year on defence, policing, transport, housing, agriculture and the environment combined. It would be incorrect to attribute all this projected increase to ageing but a significant proportion could be, if action is not taken today.
A top-10 ranking on the Issues Index appears to be a prerequisite for political action and, since 2011, both ageing and the environment have been moving in that direction.
Ageing peaked at number seven on the list of 35 worries in summer 2017. This high ranking came in the wake of the May general election, when the “dementia tax” made its way into the Conservative manifesto. It has since fallen back to a ranking between 11th and 15th. Solid, but just outside the top 10. The environment has echoed this. For most of 2011 to 2017, it was on the up but scoring just behind ageing. This changed in 2018.
Last year, the environment overtook ageing as a cause of public concern. Since July, it has secured a consistent top-10 ranking. That is nine months in the spotlight of political attention. Indeed, the environment is establishing itself as an issue in need of immediate action, beside the big beasts of the economy, the NHS, immigration, Europe and housing.
Our industry carries a responsibility to respond to the challenges of ageing. So what can we learn from the environmentalist community who are so far winning the race for public attention?
Both issues abound in academic insight. There is no shortage of inspiration for those who are led by their heads. Millions of us, however, are led by our hearts. And the environmentalists know this.
One image of an animal drowning in an ocean of plastic has more impact than 1,000 industry reports.
And, support her or not, the quiet words of 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg have secured public, media and political attention the activists on ageing issues can only dream of.
The need is for tomorrow’s massive challenges to drive massive action today. The environmentalists are achieving this goal. The ageing activists are struggling. Perhaps we need our own Greta Thunberg.
Alistair McQueen is head of savings and retirement at Aviva