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Silver Linings: The Active Third Age And The Future Of The city

Benefiting from increased life expectancy and better healthcare, the Active Third Age are aged between 60 and 74 and lead mobile and energetic lives. As their numbers grow over the coming decades, we speculate on how this demographic group could shape and define the city of the future, imagining five possible scenarios for the Britain of 2030

By 2050 there will be two billion people aged over 60 worldwide. That’s a 250 per cent increase on today’s figures.1 We can all now expect to live longer than any previous generation; since 1970, worldwide life expectancy has risen by around 10 years for both men and women2 and this is not only being driven by the developed world, which has seen life expectancy nearly double in the last century,3 the developing world too is a large contributing factor with life expectancy nearly tripling in the same period.4

In the UK, the population of older people is growing at a much faster rate than other age groups; evidence suggests that between 2013 and 2035, the number of people aged 60+ in the UK will increase by 43 per cent and that in 2035, nearly a third of our population will be over the age of 60.5 This means that we can expect a more equal distribution of age groups within our society over the next 20 years and people over 60 years old will no longer represent a minority group.

At the same time, we are seeing an increase in the number of healthy years we can expect during our lifetime. At age 65, men in the UK can now expect to live (on average) a further 10 years in good health, with a life expectancy of 83 years. Women can expect 11.7 years of good health after the age of 65 and a slightly longer life expectancy than men: 85.6 years.6 This means that, post retirement age, we can all expect to live over half of our remaining lives in good health.7

An increased number of active, healthy members of society approaching (or beyond) retirement, represent a new demographic phenomenon, unique to this period in history. Known as the ‘Active Third Age’, this group is 60-74 years old, and still very much engaged in leisure and cultural pursuits. They can expect a significant period − maybe a decade or more − between the end of their formal working lives and old age (the point at which they may require assistance or care), unless we see retirement age increased substantially. With time, health and a will to participate in mainstream society, this group are in an exciting phase of life, one that could potentially afford new freedoms and opportunities.

This demographic shift will present challenges, but more interestingly, significant opportunities: a cohort fully able to contribute to both society and the economy. In addition, people aged over 50 today (who currently only account for a third of the population) own 80 per cent of the wealth. This presents a heady mix of potential political and economic power. (Whether the growing, Active Third Age harness and retain this potential power is still unclear.) The emerging Active Third-Agers represent a unique opportunity for positive change. This group has a key role to play in the successful transition to a new demographic landscape; one in which older age is more widely considered as a dynamic and productive phase of life.

Over the following pages we speculate on a series of potential future scenarios, at a range of scales from the home, through the neighbourhood and town to wider urban and international networks. Considered together, these scenarios aim to respond to the socio-economic trends we have identified, while drawing out the positive contribution that our shifting demographic landscape could have on the city of the near future. They are not predictions or proposals, but possibilities envisaged to inspire ideas and debate.

Guiding our speculations and derived from the evidence presented in this report, are a series of key drivers of change. Some scenarios draw on more than one of these, but the principle that unites them all is that we have a growing and ageing population and this will include an increase in an Active Third Age.

Our shifting demographics:
● The cost of providing pension, welfare and health services to older people is set to rise considerably.
● There is a significant, untapped market opportunity surrounding the older consumer.
● There is significant potential for the Active Third Age to contribute to the production economy through work; either voluntary or by necessity.
● Lifelong learning in the form of skills transfer, re-training and mentoring is likely to grow in both popularity and necessity.
● Healthy lifestyles and wellbeing are gaining prominence in political discourse as ways to counter the rising cost of public healthcare including issues of obesity, social isolation and mental health.

The wider context:
● We have a housing crisis, with a lack of quality, affordable homes for an increasing population.
● Both the traditional British high street and coastal town are in decline.
● Technology and virtual networks (of information, or communities) are becoming more influential, enabling new relationships and exchanges.
● Raising a family in the 21st century is becoming increasingly complicated amid social change, with new types of family unit and new pressures of working parents, cost of childcare and provision of facilities in the modern city.
● Political influence will likely rise as the population ages and we could see a significant shift in policy to reflect this voting power.

Silver Linings

The desire to see more of the world combined with the need for fewer possessions could see the Active Third Age spawn international networks of a new housing type: a cross between a mansion block and a members’ club, which allows privacy, sociability and global travel


An international network of residences is replacing home ownership, balancing privacy with sociability and liberating Third-Agers to explore the world in style

Transient lifestyles
In 2030 Third-Agers are travelling more, and travelling light. Over the course of their lives their possessions have dematerialised, with music, movies, photographs, books, magazines and correspondence becoming digital rather than physical assets. Where previously such collections were the amassed clutter of an active social and cultured lifestyle, they can now be slipped into a pocket or simply projected as part of a digital persona. The life lived has come to be defined as a collection of experiences, not things. The Active Third Age typify this experience-seeking, light-travelling group and roam the globe, prompting networks of members’ club mansion blocks to emerge that allow such itinerant, uncluttered and unencumbered lifestyles to flourish. Increasing numbers of Third-Agers no longer require, or desire, a fixed residence, and new ways of encouraging them to open up housing for younger families have become a key priority area for governments and policy makers.

Consumers of culture and experience
If retirement used to be about winding down, for the Active Third Age it is now about gearing up. This increasingly healthy and confident group consider the traditional country idyll to be stifling and isolating, preferring to engage in the cultural melting pot of the world’s global cities − more connected and accessible than ever before. Those with money and energy are spending these resources in equal measure, consuming global culture and embracing the urban age. Market innovation and enterprise has responded to cater for this cohort’s new demands: accommodation that supports their need for security, comfort and sociability within the home, yet provides easy, integrated access to the stimulation, richness and culture of public life characteristic of the modern city. What began as a response to the Active Third Age has come to heavily influence the way buildings and spaces now explore permeability and fluidity between private and social life and the boundaries between transience and permanence. Those shaping the City in 2030 are increasingly concerned with the user experience; how to ensure people are closer and more involved at the heart of the action.

‘Over half of 46 to 65 year olds plan to travel more during retirement’

Standard Life − The Death of Retirement

Mansion block for the Third Age
Occupying central urban plots with good transport links, high-density members’ club mansion blocks for the Active Third Age are a common feature. While stylish, the apartments are economical in the amount of personal space they offer, with their design revolving around a greater focus on the shared and social spaces supporting the private dwellings; with dining, leisure and even learning used to build a very modern sense of transient community. As a 21st-century iteration of the 19th-century mansion block, this metropolitan housing type will be a synthesis of privacy and sociability, re-imagined for the Active Third Age.

Networks of these residences − either constructed organically, as a form of international association, or by private companies fusing the model of the hotel with the private members’ club − have become ever more developed, often attached to key cultural and educational institutions. Plentiful and trusted accommodation in international hotspots has resulted in an extreme form of urban time-share; instead of being ‘a home away from home’ the members’ club mansion block is a chain of ‘home after home after home’. This domestic arrangement is seen as the inevitable conclusion of a trend that has been developing since the 1950s − the rise of individualism. Abandoning the idea of the neighbourhood, it is now the relationship with the ever-changing city that these Third-Agers wish to prioritise, remaining actively engaged in civic life, with their new notion of a supportive community becoming flexible, transient − even global.

Silver Linings 4

With shops deserting the high street, the Active Third Age have spearheaded the regeneration of town centres, using other programmes to replace retail transactions with social exchange


The Active Third Age have reclaimed the high street acting as catalyst for new public amenity, private enterprise and intergenerational exchange

Reviving the high street
The British high street in 2030 is a hive of activity. After struggling economically for decades − ceding ground first to out-of-town offers and then the rise of online retail − its social purpose was significantly undermined. However, intrinsic urban characteristics remained that allowed the Active Third Age to lead a revival: central locations at the heart of traditional communities, and a comparatively varied and characterful urban fabric, able to host a mixture of uses and frame public life. Third-Agers have invigorated our high streets and shifted the balance back towards diverse, prosperous and active hubs for our new intergenerational communities.

The most important exchanges are no longer those between retailer and consumer, but between different types of people, as monetary transactions recede behind social ones. By their very nature, high streets developed centrally so people could walk to them, and that has become ever more important for a low-carbon future. In appearance the high street remains familiar, yet the activities taking place there have been transformed: the shops remain, but with much less shopping.

Choreographing the community
This increasing Third Age presence was the catalyst to finally convince local authorities that high streets could be better re-imagined as destinations to host local services and support recreation; a distinct shift in emphasis from a retail focus. With Third-Agers playing a much larger role in their grandchildren’s care, playgrounds accompanying the local crèche, nursery or infant school became a feature on high streets nationwide. This daily presence of old and young provided the impetus to rethink the urban fabric; from how we use existing buildings, to the character of public spaces. High streets became much more flexible, containing a diversity of uses that support a rich, active social and civic life. This, in turn, attracted new families to consolidate the local community. High streets were reborn as places to meet and dwell, going beyond more functional trips to become destinations enjoyed by many age groups.

A dynamic social hub
Different high streets took a bespoke, local approach to this transformation. Public space varied from pleasure gardens or covered arcades for meandering and repose, to allotments where food is grown for home-use, sold locally as a living market, or cooked in adjacent cafés and restaurants. Local services from doctors to town hall functions were relocated among new opportunities for recreation and play such as health and fitness clubs or sports facilities. Individual shop units that were once monofunctional became exciting hybrids of use; chemists took on larger healthcare roles signing deals with the NHS to offer some of its services while also encouraging healthy lifestyles through facilities and classes, delivered within the adjacent public realm. Driven by technological advances facilitating networks of ‘pop-up’ university courses, libraries saw a renaissance, mixing life-long learning with childcare or providing small business incubator spaces for new Third-Age entrepreneurs. Pubs often became ideal spaces for intergenerational knowledge exchange and skill sharing, as the boundaries between generations began to blur.

This cluster of expertise with both the time and technology to innovate, led to new enterprise and local business taking root locally, from small-scale manufacture and 3-D printing workshops to specialist consultancy; plenty of the Active Third Age now work part-time, with the flexibility and proximity to continue to watch over their grandchildren. Reasons to visit daily, for a variety of purposes, have helped reinstate the high street at the heart of the local neighbourhood. A flexible and adaptable urban fabric of retail, commerce, service provision and recreation has created an ecosystem of production and consumption, of learning and working, of socialising and caring; all galvanised by the presence of the Active Third Age.

Silver Linings 5

As the trend for the Active Third Age to move to the coast continues, private companies focus their attentions on the seaside to court this reliable demographic group into increasingly flexible working environments


Flexible work, leisure and living opportunities for Third-Agers have attracted investment to kick-start coastal towns

A sea change in coastal towns
It was the Active Third Age that saved our coastal towns. Characterised by a worrying cycle of deprivation and dependency only two decades ago, the seaside town of 2030 is no longer a place of significant social and economic decline with high unemployment and poor levels of education. The trend for older people to move to the coast in later life continued after 2013, but with the threshold between working life and retirement becoming increasingly blurred, the rise of the Active Third Age proved a catalyst for wholesale rebirth. The presence of an educated, skilled workforce brought in much-needed investment and began to shape a new economic purpose and identity, bespoke to each town but united as a riposte to the traditional tourism model of the past. Coastal towns now offer a real alternative to our core cities, one that still draws on the charm and nostalgia that remains from their heydays, but couples this with a viable socio-economic future.

‘30 per cent of 46 to 65 year olds say they want to continue to be involved in work − but on their own terms’

Standard Life − The Death of Retirement

At the root of this success was the way the Active Third Age allowed them to diversify or specialise their economies; rethinking the reliance on the same tourism industry that has been declining since cheap, package holidays abroad made such an impact on the British public. While coastal tourism was born in the days of the industrial revolution, as an escape from dirty, polluted cities, there is no reason, in the modern world, why industry and tourism should be so starkly separated.

New specialist industries were well suited to a location outside Britain’s main cities, and encouraged to work in tandem with tourism to revive both the economic structure and the unique identity of coastal towns. Private companies increasingly welcomed older employees who have often proved to be articulate, responsible and reliable members of their workforce. Such companies were encouraged to invest in coastal areas, forming strategic partnerships with the local authority or taking advantage of new national Government policy initiatives to establish special economic zones for innovation. The Coastal Communities Fund, set up by Government back in 2012, acknowledged the public sector role in stimulating investment and became key to unlocking the potential of demographic change and the impact that the Active Third Age could have at the scale of a town.

Expertise as local identity
A new model of identity-led regeneration has emerged; one that is replicated around the country, each location being defined by a different industry combining tourism, production and training. This layered economy provides a resilient and sustainable structure that has allowed places to best harness the resource presented by our shifting demographic landscape. Third-Age ‘enterprise zones’ have become fully integrated into the urban fabric and are now widely supported by new infrastructure from high-speed rail links to new public transport routes.

New innovations in housing models now explore retirement housing organised around career type, in order to make an attractive proposition for potential residents who will have confidence they will be living with people sharing similar interests. In this regard, we are seeing both private business and professional institutions investing and committing to a place and its community, reminiscent of the Victorian philanthropists in both scope and impact.

Over time, a synergy has developed between education (intergenerational skill sharing), production (specialist industry) and consumption (entertainment, leisure and tourism) at the scale of the town. Catalysed by the Active Third Age, this has consolidated the image, identity and future of Britain’s coastal town heritage. Instead of a spiral of decline and deprivation, a new cycle of sustainable innovation and enterprise has emerged to help rebalance the national economy.


Traditionally a place for social interaction, the public house struggled in the early 21st century to stay in business. Could pubs of the future host other programmes, such as skills transfer between the generations?


The city has become a university, using existing infrastructure to support learning and skill sharing between generations

Intergenerational knowledge transfer
Many Active Third-Agers in 2030 are taking the opportunity to study later in life. Some need to re-train to extend their working life, or move into a different sector to better suit their health and lifestyle, but many will see learning as part of a leisured life. Studying informally and for the sheer enjoyment of it, this group often pick and mix short courses. The University of the Third Age (U3A) has, for half a century now, pioneered older experts or enthusiasts sharing knowledge and skills, using existing spaces for lessons with no help from the state. What began as learning for fun, within a social group, became a defining feature of the increasingly Active Third Age presence in the 21st-century city. This intensifying demographic phenomenon, coupled with technological advances, enabled U3A to blossom, expanding the network which became chief mediator to connect people from different generations who previously may only have met through family, friends or proximity.

Conversely, some Third-Agers now see participation in education as part of their responsibility to society. Following the dramatic rise in student tuition fees, this type of intergenerational knowledge transfer has come to play a profound role in the higher education market, from course-based accredited formats to practical experience-based ones. Retired accountants now impart book-keeping skills, while those from the building trades are readily mentoring apprentices.

City as campus
An array of networks has now become well established to facilitate this new knowledge economy. These mostly, though not exclusively, choreograph first contact between people in the digital realm, but unlike Open University where remote learning is valued for its convenience, Third-Agers have embraced the more social aspects of face-to-face interaction. Both the giving and receiving of education are now carried out in ad-hoc urban settings, using and appropriating existing spaces and infrastructure.

The city has become a university. The cultural resources of the metropolis easily serve such an enterprise with galleries, museums and theatres offering informal, open and free space to meet. But private businesses were quick to follow suit, with the morning and afternoon lulls in restaurants and cafés readily absorbed by the need for sociable spaces for seminars and workshops. Public transport is now an essential part of education taking place in the city; transport hubs often accommodate lectures and lessons, which even continue on certain trains and planes. Timetables and travel plans are now increasingly becoming structured around learning; from making the most of the commute to killing time at the airport, education is seeping into the everyday.

A new approach to work/life balance
The Active Third-Agers have become the vanguard of this new work-learn-play lifestyle − liberated from being exclusively preoccupied with any one pursuit. Major social and commercial hubs now offer learning opportunities alongside existing products or services, to satisfy demand: libraries, high streets, theatres, galleries, public transport interchanges, cafés, all form part of an informal network of knowledge exchange and dissemination. The boundaries between work, education and leisure have blurred and the city has started to respond to this opportunity. Urban educational networks have become a valuable piece of social and financial infrastructure, giving purpose and employment to those seeking to learn or teach for enjoyment or enrichment.

Silver Linings 6

Instead of going to the gym (a hopelessly 20th-century monofunctional building type), city networks could provide many of the exercise environments needed by the Active Third Age to keep fit


A network of Third-Age health hubs, connected by routes promoting exercise in public spaces, now encourage active ageing and wellbeing in the city

Promoting health
Staying healthy is of increasing importance to Third-Agers in 2030. The determining factor of whether you will lead a fulfilling and varied later life is now widely acknowledged to be the degree to which you can remain active; a member of the Active Third Age. Public and private bodies were slow to react to the poor levels of exercise in older people but now endeavour to encourage fitness − both physical and mental − as part of daily routine. A new culture of public exercise is now perceived to help keep national health costs down and ensure Active Third-Agers can remain part of a reliable and productive workforce.

Street level interventions
With an eye on health budgets, governments dramatically expanded active life campaigns and urban planning followed suit. Encouraged by national codes and local strategic plans, cities have invested in and developed long-term innovations in ‘healthy infrastructure’. They have been transformed with generous routes for walking, running and cycling along with integrated opportunities for sports and games or dwelling and socialising, catering for a broad demographic. Connections often link key landmarks, public parks or different communities by providing spaces and facilities that prioritise the active pedestrian. Money is increasingly invested in new environments that draw on design to foster and support healthy lifestyles rather than spending unsustainable amounts on health provision − a move from reactionary towards preventative action.

We also now see private companies marketing health services to Third-Agers. More than just a gym exclusively for an older clientele, innovative facilities act as a point-of-contact in the transition from work to retirement, creating a crucial social network − an arena not only for exercise but for camaraderie, support and even romance.

‘80 per cent of 65 to 74 year olds in England are not doing the recommended levels of exercise’

Health hubs and active networks
There is now increasing potential to bring together public and private services, with gym providers creating facilities to support emerging recreation networks. Like the red telephone boxes that used to be an essential ingredient of the street, branded facilities are dispersed around the city, piggybacking off existing exercise spaces. These offer changing rooms, showers and bathrooms, cycle hire, cycle parking and social spaces to allow friends to meet. Crucially, they provide a 24-hour constant monitoring service that is linked to the health cloud and your local GP. Wrist bands take heart readings and blood pressure, and constant monitoring increasingly allows health problems to be predicted before they develop.

Travelling across the city by recreational networks and integrated public transport has become the most healthy, efficient and accessible option; the obvious choice. In the same way commuting was once seen as an opportunity to catch up on the daily news, it’s now seen primarily as an opportunity to stay healthy and socialise while moving around the city.


1. Ageing in the 21st Century: A Celebration and a Challenge, UNFPA/HelpAge International, 2012.
2. The Global Burden of Disease Study 2010, The Lancet, 13 December 2012.
3. Around 1900 average life expectancy was between 45 and 50 years old in the developed world, now it is 80. Ageing in the 21st Century: A Celebration and a Challenge, UNFPA/HelpAge International, 2012.
4. Human Development 1900 & 2000: The Facts, New Internationalist magazine issue 309, 1999.
5. Based on data from analysis of the Office for National Statistics Principal Population Projection 2010 (continuing trends of births, deaths and migration).
6. Later Life in the United Kingdom: Fact Sheet, August 2013, Age UK, 2013.
7. Good Health is defined by the Office for National Statistics as Healthy Life Expectancy which incorporates a quality of life dimension based upon self-perceived general health and freedom from limiting persistent illness or disability.


This essay has been extracted from ‘Silver Linings: The Active Third Age and the City’ produced by RIBA Building Futures.
The full report can be found at

Illustrations: Patrick Vale

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