Jane Falkingham is Professor of Demography and International Social Policy at the University of Southampton and Director of the ESRC Centre for Population Change, exploring the drivers and consequences of a changing population. Much of her research over the past 20 years has focused on the social policy implications of population ageing and the wellbeing of older people, with her research taking an explicitly life-course approach.
To coincide with the UN’s World Population Day (11 July), here are Jane Falkingham’s reflections on an ageing population – first published in our Outlook at 50 series during our 50th anniversary year in 2015.
Why did you pursue an academic career?
An inspirational lecturer, Professor Tim Dyson, inspired me to study Demography at post-graduate level. I was then lucky enough to be offered a research post on the ESRC-funded Welfare State Programme, and through working with wonderful researchers such as Julian le Grand and John Hills saw that our research could make a real difference to the lives of people. That passion to make a positive difference still drives me today, both as an educator – hopefully inspiring the next generator of social scientists – and as a researcher, addressing real-world issues.
What career achievements are you most proud of?
Being the inaugural Director of the ESRC Centre for Population Change is a tremendous privilege and source of pride. Our researchers based across five universities (Southampton, St Andrews, Edinburgh, Stirling and Strathclyde) are engaged in cutting-edge research shedding light on the causes and consequences of the demographic trends that are reshaping our society – from changing family forms, through migration and increasing diversity, to increasing longevity and population ageing.
What is the most important issue society is facing today?
Population ageing is a key challenge. Changes in life expectancy mean we are all living longer, and as a consequence we need to think about how our life courses are altering and how society needs to adapt. The fact that one in three children born today will live to 100 is definitely a cause for celebration, but we also need to plan ahead to make sure that both today’s and tomorrow’s older people can live an active healthy life, and that when they need support and care, that support is both available and appropriate.
What do you feel is the most important finding of economics and social science over the past 50 years?
It’s difficult to narrow down to one specific finding, but certainly the most significant achievement was for economic and social scientists, through the ESRC and other bodies, to have to foresight to invest in the collection and curation of longitudinal data which span across the past 50 years. The British birth cohort studies are the envy of social scientists across the globe, and have allowed us to investigate how life experiences impact on health and wellbeing later in the life course, and also to map how disadvantage has been replicated across generations within the same family – allowing us to formulate policy responses to enhance individuals’ opportunities and improve wellbeing.