Growing inequalities are disadvantaging older people

Health, income and education levels all contribute to the growing gap between the “top 10%” and the “bottom 10%” globally. Older people are not immune to the effects of this division. A study conducted by the Centre for Ageing Better found “shameful and stark” contrasts in people’s experiences of later life.

This inequality is reflected in the average life expectancy in the 10 highest ranking countries compared to the 10 lowest ranking countries. People in the lowest ranked countries lived on average 5.7 years less than people in the highest ranked countries in 1990. By 2012 this gap had increased to 7.3 years. On average, the additional life expectancy after age 60 across all countries is 21 years. People aged 60 in Japan have the highest life expectancy and live on average an additional 26 years, while people aged 60 in Afghanistan, live on average an additional 16 years. Inequality in health, education and income levels of older people all play a part.


Income levels affect everything from the ability to access healthcare to housing, transport and leisure. As we explored above, income levels and poverty also affect life expectancy considerably. In Western Europe, 86.5 per cent of women of retirement age receive a pension, compared with 99.2 per cent of men. In Central and Eastern Europe, the figures are 93.8 per cent and 97.2 per cent respectively, while in Latin America, 52.4 per cent of women and 62.3 per cent of men receive a pension.

As you can see, women are more adversely affected and disadvantaged in this area with only 36% of women aged 65-69 received a full state pension in 2014. When looking at pension savings, women who have spent most of their lives working part-time are no better off in retirement than women who have never worked.


Education is key in preventing isolation. It was found that in conjunction with wealth, higher education levels are associated with better social connections in later life. This is important as loneliness in older people has also been compared to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Loneliness also has adverse health effects. It is associated with depression, sleep problems, impaired cognitive health, heightened vascular resistance, hypertension, psychological stress and mental health problems.

Between 1990 and 2010 inequality in educational attainment increased by 50 per cent between top 10 and bottom 10 countries. Although all regions have made progress on socio-economic indicators, low and lower-income countries are falling behind. A lifetime of gender discrimination combined with the inequality of old age can have a devastating effect on older women. Many women are denied access to the formal labour market and instead work as carers of children.


A persons independence and quality of life is heavily associated with their health, especially in later years. The study conducted by the Centre for Ageing Better found that older people with the least wealth are more likely to have one or more health problems, including angina, diabetes, depression, osteoarthritis and cataracts. Poorer people in later life are up to 4.2 times more likely to have diabetes and up to 15.1 times more likely to have osteoarthritis. Older people who live in poorer areas are significantly more likely to be frail than those who live in richer areas and have more wealth.

How is New Zealand looking?

New Zealand is not immune to the affects of inequality. Recently Oxfam reported that the richest 1 per cent of Kiwis have 28 per cent — $42 billion — of the wealth created in a single year. Meanwhile, the poorest 1.4 million people (30 per cent of the population), got barely 1 per cent — $1.5b — of all the wealth created in 2017.

In New Zealand, we are fortunate that everyone over the age of 65 is entitled to receive a pension. However, those who rely on their pension to pay rent or their mortgage are struggling. As of the 2013 census, 19 per cent of the 65-plus population were not living in owner-occupied dwellings. 10 per cent live in private sector rentals, 4 per cent in social housing and 5 per cent in institutions (like residential care facilities). The most recent data from Statistics NZ tell us that as of June last year, more than half of the 65-plus age group have an income that puts them in the second lowest quintile — in dollar terms that means an annual income between $12,700 and $25,800.

Our public health system ensures that everyone is able to access it, no matter how much money they may or may not have. However, poverty related diseases are still largely present within the health system. Also there are many socio-economic barriers that prevent people from accessing the help that they may need.

Safe to say there are definitely things to improve on!

Professor Thomas Scharf, lead author from Newcastle University Institute for Ageing, concludes “Our research confirms the persisting nature of inequalities affecting people in later life. This means that, as people age, not everyone has the same access to good health and wellbeing, decent incomes and housing, or supportive social relationships. The fact that evidence of inequalities is consistent over time points to the need for a stronger focus on addressing the causes of disadvantage in later life. This is a challenge not only for government, but for society as a whole.”

About Eve Williams

Eve Williams is the Content Developer and Social Media Administration for Eldernet. She is currently studying towards her Masters at the University of Canterbury. She has a passion for learning new things.