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The unequal distribution of an aging population

In the last three decades, whilst the population of the United Kingdom has increased, this growth has not been evenly distributed. Cities and larger towns have in effect grown younger whilst towns and villages have aged. The table below shows the age and place distribution of population growth since 1981.

increae decrease population

Between 1981 and 2011 our towns and villages lost over a million people under the age of 25 whilst gaining over two million over 65s. In contrast, our Core Cities gained over 300,000 under 25s and lost close to 200,000 over 65s. The sorting effect has aged our towns and villages whilst making our cities younger.

These patterns also vary by region. The table below shows the population growth between 1981 and 2011 by the type of town or city. Towns across the north and Scotland have seen their populations fail to keep up with growth elsewhere in the UK. In Wales, the city of Cardiff has seen its population rise by a quarter, over twice the rate of its towns. Towns across the south-east, south-west, East of England and East Midlands have seen strong growth.

Region/country Small towns Medium towns Large towns Core cities
East Midlands 14% 20% 21% 17%
East of England 26% 19% 20% n/a
North east 1% 3% -7% 3%
North west 5% 1% 2% 1%
Scotland 3% 2% 0% -4%
South east 25% 24% 23% 24%
South west 28% 28% 24% 13%
Wales 9% 10% 7% 25%
West Midlands 18% 7% 9% 4%
Yorks & Humber 9% 9% 6% 5%

Table 3, Increase/decrease in population between 1981 and 2011, by region and type

The reason for the flat (or falling) population in parts of the north is a burgeoning over 65s population. The growth in the over 65s has outstripped any growth in the working-age population, leading to many towns becoming naturally older. 

Our cities have seen an increase of almost one and a half million people aged between 25 and 44 since 1981. London has been responsible for most of this growth, with over a million more 25 to 44-year old’s in 2011 compared to 1981. The same upward trend in working-age populations is found in cities like Manchester, Leeds, Brighton, Birmingham, and Edinburgh whilst towns like Middlesbrough, Birkenhead, Greenock, Hartlepool and Stockton have continued to lose working-age populations.

The chart below shows the change in the old-age dependency ratio for each of our place types. This measures the number of people aged over 65 as a percentage of those in the labour force (aged 16 to 64). Over 65s make up ever-smaller proportions of the total labour force in cities and large towns but ever-larger proportions of the total labour force elsewhere.

old age depenancy ratio 81 2011 

These trends have significant implications for our small and medium sized towns given that the number of those aged over 65 are projected to continue to increase over the next decade at least. A diminishing pool of working-age populations, combined with a growing elderly population, in small and medium sized towns will continue to pose a challenge to policy makers and put pressure on local services.

The chart below shows the full dependency ratio for each of our places of interest. This measures the number of those under 16 in addition to those over 65 as a proportion of those in the labour force (aged 16 to 64). Once again, there are marked disparities between large towns and cities when compared with towns and villages.

dependancy ratio 81to2011

The towns with the highest and lowest old-age dependency ratios are listed in the tables below, together with the proportions of over 65s in each town. In Southport, for example, there are 39 over 65s for every 100 of working age. 

Town Region Population Old-age dependency ratio Over 65s (%)
Southport North west 92,676 39 23%
Eastbourne South east 108,819 38 23%
Worthing South east 111,604 36 22%
Thanet South east 125,702 35 21%
Rayleigh Eastern 93,419 35 21%

Table 4, Top five towns for old age dependency ratio’s

Town Region Population Old-age dependency ratio Over 65s (%)
Milton Keynes North west 171,362 18 12%
Grays Eastern 64,817 17 13%
Livingston Scotland 58,460 16 11%
Canterbury South east 55,906 15 10%
Bracknell South east 80,429 13 9%

Table 5, Bottom five towns for old age dependency ratio’s             

The medium towns with the largest increases in over 65 populations, and the largest decrease of working-age populations, are listed below. Note the regional disparities evident here; growth in the south, decline in the midlands, north and Scotland. This trend holds for dozens of towns.

Town Region Population Aged 25 to 44 change Over 65s change
Grays Eastern 64,817 +13,609 +1,064
Aylesbury South east 72,357 +8,117 +3,310
Ashford South east 68,644 +6,471 +3,481
Royal Tunbridge Wells South east 57,472 +6,273 +265
Redhill South east 58,647 +6,124 -25
Kingswinford West Mids 56,225 -3,248 +5,890
Halesowen West Mids 61,752 -2,682 +3,107
Heswall North west 30,871 -2,673 +2,588
Bearsden Scotland 30,321 -2,635 +2,391
Aldridge West Mids 40,586 -2,183 +4,615

Table 6, Medium towns with the largest increase (top) and decrease (bottom) in over 65s, 1981-2011


An aging population presents a significant challenge to policy makers in and of itself, quite apart from the myriad other socio-demographic and economic issues the country faces. However, it is important to understand the geographical distribution of an aging population. 

Small and medium-sized towns, predominantly not in the south of England, have slowly grown older whilst our large towns and cities have grown younger. One by-product of this divergence has been the electoral behaviour in both places.

In the European referendum, cities like London, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds, and Newcastle voted to Remain. Large towns like Cambridge, Oxford, Brighton, York, Reading, Norwich, and Leicester also voted to Remain. However, many of our ageing towns voted to Leave; places like Bolsover, Ashfield, Hartlepool, Doncaster, Stoke, Dudley, Blackpool, Oldham, Peterborough, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhondda all voted overwhelmingly to Leave.

In the general election, Labour performed very strongly amongst younger, city-dwelling voters in cities and university towns whilst the Conservatives performed strongly amongst older voters in former industrial areas; voters which had previously moved from Labour to UKIP. The Conservatives victories in Mansfield and Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, and the Labour victories in Canterbury and Kensington were totemic symbols of a volatile political landscape in which traditional tribal loyalties were either weaponized or turned on their head.

Not that these phenomena are unique to the United Kingdom. The coal seam which runs from south Wales under the Atlantic to Appalachia has at either end communities which have recently moved to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo. In Appalachia they voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump; in south Wales they have moved to UKIP until recently and voted to Leave the European Union.

Of course, an ageing population is a single factor. However, one could argue that independent of economic or policy differences between the main political parties, the geographical distribution of changing age-group populations is at least a significant contributor to the results we see in our elections. This is particularly salient given that there appear to be such divergent political priorities for older town-dwellers as opposed to younger city-dwellers.

Given that demographers expect these trends to continue, we would be well advised to respect the implications of these trends for our towns and cities. If our large towns and cities continue to get younger, and our smaller towns continue to get older, we are only partially along a journey which is likely to see older places continuing to express their discontent with the status quo. Quite what that will mean for our politics is one thing. Quite another is what that means for our country.

Which is just one of the reasons we’ve started the Centre For Towns………  

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