Autumn Statement 2016: Cold calling

In that wonderful way in which the news often throws up patterns, a century separates two people who have made headlines for their record-breaking this week. The first was 17-year-old Ben Woodburn, who became Liverpool's youngest-ever goalscorer when he sealed his team's win against Leeds United in the EFL Cup quarter final on Tuesday evening. That same day, Emma Morano celebrated her 117th birthday at her home in northern Italy.

Our society is obsessed with age when records are broken; less so when faced with the monumental, sprawling but often ignored challenge of our era: the ageing population, social care and retirement. Ms Morano was asked the question supercentenarians are always asked: what is the secret to her longevity? In her case, it was two eggs a day. Sometimes it is a whisky after lunch. For others it is a "bit of what you fancy". But perhaps we are missing the bigger picture: is the answer to a long life not a certain food – but work?

Boredom compelled 89-year-old Joe Bartley to place an advert in his local paper looking for a job, preferably more than 20 hours a week. "Still able to clean, light gardening, DIY and anything," he wrote. If this last word didn't reveal the desperation of Mr Bartley to get out of his armchair on a daily basis and keep busy, he added: "Save me from dying of boredom!" A former soldier whose wife died two years ago, Mr Bartley wants the benefits that work can bring: social contact, financial reward, and the sense of fulfilment that doing even the most routine job can bring.

Unless ill health or disability prevents them from leaving the house, there must be many older people in the same situation as Mr Bartley. Retirement – particularly for those with a decent pension – can be a golden age of travel, gardening or bridge mornings with friends. But a study last year suggested that three million people currently working plan to continue after state pension age, partly because they will need the money, but also because they want to. State pension ages were set in another era when life expectancy was much lower, and although they are now increasing, the current retirement age of 65 is no longer regarded as elderly. There will be many people in their seventies who regard themselves as "wellderly" – the horrible yet apt word to describe pensioners physically and mentally fit enough to work.

We should look at the challenge of our ageing population in a more positive, preventative light

Nobody should be forced to work past retirement. But encouraging a "grey army" into employment would change the way society regards older people: visible, active and social, rather than hidden, confined and isolated. A demographic is harder to ignore when its representatives are there in our everyday lives. For the individual, there are the benefits of social interaction, the gentle physical exercise that comes with doing a job, the mental stimulation of handling money at a till, or working on accounts. Keeping physically active could prevent falls, keeping mentally active could stave off dementia - both ways to save their own health as well as saving the NHS money.

A week after Chancellor Philip Hammond failed to award any extra funds in his Autumn Statement to social care, Theresa May conceded at PMQs that the system was "under pressure". Despite the prime minister's claims to be putting extra funding social care, budgets have not kept up with demand. There are daily reports of how the NHS cannot cope with the pressure of "bed-blocking" caused by elderly patients who cannot be released into the community because there is no-one there to help them. It is beyond doubt that social care needs significantly more money than it currently receives. But on top of this, we should look at the challenge of our ageing population in a more positive, preventative light. One place to start would be deploying the nation's grey army.