We’ll be older – can we be wiser?

A massive consultation seeking public opinion on the changing social fabric of Britain launches today. The Debate of the Age website address is www.age2000.org.uk

This is the age of the public initiative. In the spirit of New Labour, and post-Diana, the great British people are being encouraged to not only take part in, but to shape campaigns.

Last month we were confronted with the mind-boggling concept of Captain Euro and his website. Through pan-European participation on the Internet, the character’s creator Twelve Stars hopes to shake off the scepticism surrounding the continent’s institutions. And last weekend more than 250 000 ruralists took to London’s streets to make their voice heard by the Government and improve the way countryside issues are dealt with.

The mood of a nation once associated with apathy seems to have turned to one of proaction and grass roots empowerment.

Age Concern is tapping into this new-found fervour with the launch today of a national debate on the shape of the future. All the statistics point to a huge change in demographics in the coming decades, which will lead to unprecedented lifestyle changes in housing, education, health service, employment and leisure. Longer life spans and falling birth rates are the key factors.

The Debate of the Age is hoping to involve 300 million citizens, which would make it the country’s biggest-ever independent public consultation initiative. It has the support of the three main political parties and backing from the likes of Legal & General, BUPA and Bradford & Bingley Building Society.

The branding and marketing of the colossal scheme has been handled by Sampson Tyrrell Enterprise. The organisers are looking for heavy, two-year coverage and have plans for a national public opinion survey, the launch of research papers on the five central themes, a 1m advertising campaign, television and radio debates, press articles, an on-line debate, and the possibility of the issues being written into TV programming.

The organisers have no clear outcome of the initiative in mind, only that they want people to have their say – an approach STE director Mary Peterkin calls “brave”.

The consultancy’s work has included the creation of an umbrella logo, sub-brands to be adopted by sponsors, six information booklets, a website, merchandising, and a “battle bus” called the Time Machine. STE, which has been involved since early last year, is working on the project with WPP stablemates Hill & Knowlton on PR, Henley Centre on research and Ogilvy & Mather Advertising.

The branding has all the signs of a well-thought-out, coherent campaign, balancing the needs of the sponsors and other participating organisations with rallying the public. STE creative director Stuart Redfern has discovered there are 2000 words which incorporate the syllable “age”. By taking ownership of these words, sponsors can tailor their offer to the debate. Kodak can adopt the word “image”, and a wine supplier could take up the word “vintage”.

The marketing strategy will be fed through “intermediaries which people already have relationships with: the media and brands”, says Peterkin.

Meanwhile, information booklets, each with a 500 000 print run, focus on specific areas of the debate, and feature a pull-out questionnaire which can be sent back for the data to be inputted into a conclusive document.

Every fortnight a new proposal will be posted on the Internet for people to respond to. This proposal, such as the idea that smokers should pay more towards the National Health Service, will be defended by one public figure, and argued against by another, with the public able to contribute to the discussion on the Internet.

All the information gathered will culminate in spring 2000 in an Agenda for the Age – a policy document to be presented to decision-makers. In the meantime, the success of the programme depends on the enthusiasm with which it is embraced by the media and hence the public.

The issues of the age

In 1995 there were fewer than nine million people over 65 in the UK. By 2030 there will be 50 per cent more – almost 14 million

In 1951 there were 300 centenarians. In 2031 there will be 34 000

Over the next 30 years the number of people aged over 65 in the UK will increase by 50 per cent

In 1991 21 per cent of the workforce was aged 20-34. By 2001 this will have dropped to 14 per cent

In 1961 there were four people of working age to sustain the pension of each pensioner. By 2040 this will be halved to only two people per pensioner

For the first time in 1996 more women had babies between the ages of 30 and 35 than those aged 20 to 25

In 1961 there were 3.3 million children under five; in 2030 there will be 1.6 million.

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