Active Ageing Research Sets the Global Agenda

With the number of people in the world 60 years of age and over forecast to reach two billion by 2050, the ageing population is a global issue.

A portrait of old man and woman resting after doing sport outside in the countryside

Professor Alan Walker, from the University's Department of Sociological Studies, is a world leader in the study of ageing and has influenced government policy and practice on the subject for over three decades.

Alan Walker's ageing research and, in particular, his work on active ageing, have provided the basis for Sheffield's ageing strategy and will benefit thousands of older people in the city, focusing not only on health and well-being but also economic, transport, housing and wider issues.

Richard Webb

Former Executive Director for Communities at Sheffield City Council

His influence comes as a direct result of his extensive research into ageing which has produced many new insights, theories and practical applications and brought numerous accolades. This research formed the basis for his influential inputs to the UN's Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing (2002) which set the global ageing agenda.

In 1998 Professor Walker helped design, and directed, the Growing Older programme (GO). Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), this comprised 24 projects, all focused on quality of life in old age.

Active ageing

As part of his work on the programme, Professor Walker developed active ageing as a core concept.

Active ageing is all about optimising the opportunities for health, participation and financial security, in order to enhance quality of life for people as they get older.

In 2004, this concept was further developed by Professor Walker through research on age barriers in employment. The resulting guide to good practice in age management offered a key resource for policy makers, employers and human resources practitioners.

Following this, in 2005, Professor Walker was appointed director of the first UK multi-disciplinary ageing research programme, the New Dynamics of Ageing (NDA).

This multi-million pound programme was co-funded by five UK research councils. It's the largest of its kind ever mounted in the UK, involving 91 researchers and 67 universities.

The NDA broke entirely new ground in understanding the ageing process and its implications for policy, practice and product development.

As a result of his work, Professor Walker became co-recipient of the Queen's Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2002 and in 2007 he was given lifetime achievement awards by both the British Society of Gerontology and the Social Policy Association.

These awards were followed by further recognition in 2013, when Professor Walker won the ESRC inaugural impact champion, awarded for his research into ageing.

Professor Walker’s concept of active ageing has been adopted by national governments in Quebec and Northern Ireland, by national charities, such as Age UK and locally by Sheffield City Council - leading in each case to significant policy change which is benefiting older people.

To live longer we have to change outdated ideas of what it means to grow old

In a new piece for The Conversation, Professor Alan Walker writes about the need to change the negative view that ageing is a problem.

Despite being called a “grand challenge” alongside climate change and terrorism, the fact of an ageing society isn’t new; it has been proceeding quietly across all developed countries for 174 years: data on female life expectancies starting in 1840 reveal an average increase of two months every ten years.

The linear trajectory of this increase is remarkable and shows no sign of reaching a plateau. This century, the fastest growing section of the population is the very old; there are 10m Britons alive today who can expect to live to at least 100.

The familiar response to such information is negative: ageing is a problem. This is certainly the dominant media narrative, with common references to the “costs” and “burdens” of ageing. Of course this narrative discounts the economic, social and cultural contributions made by older people, for example in families as grandparents and in local communities. It also ignores the very high levels of solidarity between generations when it frequently suggests that the baby boomers are stealing resources from younger generations.