The post-World War 2 baby boom generation turned 70 in 2016. They were the first to benefit from 20th century developments such as ‘cradle to grave welfare’.
They have lived through a period of unprecedented economic, social, cultural and technological change.
Babies born earlier, during the baby boom that followed World War 1 lived through the Great Depression, were young adults during World War 2, and turned 70 in the early 1990s, just as recession hit the UK.
Despite there being fewer than three decades between these generations, there are differences in life expectancy, marital status, childbearing, and employment.
Survival to age 70 has improved
The number of people in their 70s in the UK increased from 4 million to 5 million between 1990 and 2016.
This is because survival was far better for the post-World War 2 baby boom generation (born 1946) than those born following the World War 1 baby-boom (born 1920).
Only 58% of the 957,782 babies born in England and Wales in 1920 (turning 70 in 1990) survived to age 70, compared to 78% of the 820,719 babies born in 1946 (turning 70 in 2016).
Survival to age 70, England and Wales
With increases in survival have come increases in life expectancy: life expectancy at birth for women in England and Wales pushed through the 70 age barrier in 1950, while men had to wait until 1977, almost three decades later.
Life expectancy at age 70 has improved
Having got there, today’s 70-year-olds also live for longer than their predecessors, particularly men.
The gap in life expectancy (the average years of life remaining) between men and women in the UK has narrowed, with life expectancy at age 70 increasing by 39% for men between 1990 and 2016, and by 21% for women.
Based on mortality patterns in 2016, men aged 70 can now expect to live for a further 15.3 years, up from 11.0 years in 1990. For women this is 17.3 years, up from 14.3 years in 1990.
Increases in life expectancy have been linked to reductions in smoking and circulatory disease. People in their 70s in Great Britain are less likely to smoke than in the past. The General Household Survey reported that 18% were smokers in 1990 to 1991, dropping to 9% in 2016 (Opinions and Lifestyle Survey).
Marriage is on the increase, but so is divorce
Increases in life expectancy between 1991 and 2016 mean that more men survived into their 70s. Only 30% of women in their 70s were widows in 2016, compared to 49% in 1991.
This may help explain the increase in the proportion of women who are married (from 40% to 55%), as well as a climb in the number of older people who are divorced; a three-fold increase to 9% of men and a four-fold increase to 12% of women.
Marital status among men aged 70 to 79, 1991 and 2016, England and Wales
Marital status among women aged 70 to 79, 1991 and 2016, England and Wales
Marriage rates are highest for divorcees
Marriage rates were higher for men aged 70 to 79 than their female counterparts, possibly because men tend to marry younger women. And marriage rates were higher for divorcees than single or widowed people.
Marriage rates among people aged 70 to 79 by previous marital status, 2015, England and Wales
High remarriage rates among divorcees could go some way to explain the concurrent increase in the proportion of both married and divorced people in their 70s since 1991, because while there has been an increase in the number of divorcees, divorced people are likely to remarry.
Fewer women are childless at age 70 today
Today’s 70-year-old women are far less likely to be childless than the previous generation; childlessness halved from 21% to 9% of women between 1990 and 2015.
Higher levels of childlessness among women turning 70 in 1990 could be associated with the harsh times that they lived through.
They experienced the shortages of the Great Depression in childhood and hit fertility during the turmoil of World War 2 during which many young men died, resulting in a deficit of potential husbands.
For people born in 1920, prior to World War 2 there were more men than women (1019 men to every 1,000 women aged 15 to 19 in 1936) in England and Wales, while after World War 2 there were more women than men (989 men to every 1000 women aged 25 to 29 in 1946).
As a result, today’s 70-year-old women are more likely to have children to support them in old age than a generation earlier.
While fewer women are childless at age 70, they are less likely to have large families (four or more children) than in the past, and more likely to have just two or three children.
Number of children to women aged 70, 1991 and 2016, England and Wales
Employment among older people is on the rise
The employment rate for people aged 70 to 79 in Great Britain doubled between 1992 and 2017, from 4% to 8%, according to the Labour Force Survey.
The increase may have been partly due to legislation coming into force in 2011, which prevented employers from compulsorily retiring workers once they reach 65.
More people in their 70s are working than in the past. This could suggest that older people are healthier and more able to continue working into later life, after pensionable age. For some it could be due to a desire to work and stay active, but for others because of a need to work due to insufficient pension income.
People in their 70s are better off than previously
Regardless of the reasons for increased employment, people in their 70s are more financially secure than in the past. In the British Household Panel Survey of 1991 only half of people (52%) reported their financial situation as either ‘doing alright’ or ‘living comfortably’. By 2016 this had increased to 82% (Understanding Society).
This change may be related to the recession in the early 1990s, which would have dampened financial optimism.
Current financial situation, ages 70 to 79, 1991 and 2016, UK
Another explanation for the increase in financial confidence is an increase in home ownership.
According to the General Household Survey, in Great Britain in 1990 to 1991 only half (52%) of people in their 70s lived in homes that were owned outright, compared to three-quarters (78%) in 2016 (Opinions and Lifestyle Survey).
People turning 70 today were in their mid-30s when then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher expanded the Right to Buy scheme in 1980, a scheme which was open to a large swathe of the population: in 1979 around 32% of all dwellings in Britain were council houses.
They benefitted from large discounts on council houses, resulting in a rapid expansion in home ownership; sales peaked in 1982 to 1983 with 182,171 homes sold over 12 months in England and Wales. People turning 70 in 1990 were in their early 60s at that time and would have found it more difficult to secure a mortgage.
Another factor in increased financial confidence of those in their 70s in 2016 may be an improvement in educational levels driving better-paid, more secure jobs than in the past. The 1991 to 1992 Health Survey for England found that most people (71%) in their 70s had no qualifications and only 10% had an A-level or higher. By 2015 less than half (47%) had no qualifications, and the proportion educated to at least A-level had trebled to 31%.