A home for old age: a problem set to grow

The elderly of the future will reach retirement with less accumulated resources and with much more polarised residential conditions. With no savings, lower pension contribution rates and, in all probability, no home ownership, this population will face an ageing housing stock that is not adapted to the needs of the elderly but, above all, a scenario in which income and rental prices will be completely out of kilter.

Ageism and the discourse of the conflict over limited resources have meant that certain manifestations of inequality are not generally regarded as problems society and the state should address. Housing has been traditionally conceived in our country as an asset for investment rather than the basic right it should be. That’s the reason why it acts as the greatest driver of social stratification. Nowadays, it’s currently used as a symbolic polarising agent, making us forget that its main purpose is to provide security for those living in it.

Faced with a context of growing housing insecurity for the population as a whole, where it is becoming increasingly difficult to access a first home or to make ends meet after paying rent, certain claims are repeated and it is taken for granted that older generations have all their housing needs adequately covered. Retirement age is supposed to act as a kind of magic threshold that makes all our needs, as well as the effects of lifelong inequality, disappear.

Behind this lies a mixture of beliefs, not all of which are wrong: in Spain, the majority of the over 65s today are property owners – 83.4%[1]– and the pension system has undoubtedly helped to maintain their quality of life. However, it is also true that there is great economic heterogeneity among the over-65 population and that certain groups are unable to meet their basic needs at the end of their lives. For example, 737,383 people over 65 – 62% of whom are women – do not have the financial capacity to cope with unforeseen expenses (such as the boiler breaking down); 1,284,894 people over 65 feel cold at home due to financial constraints and, although the poverty rate is comparatively lower than for other age groups, it is 18.7%. On the other hand, 204,820 people over 65 not entitled to a contributory retirement pension – 73.18% of whom are women – live on non-contributory pensions of between 121.15 and 484.61 euros per month, which cannot be supplemented by other benefits or income.

With regard to housing, the synthetic indicator based on data from the 2011 Census (which cannot be replicated using data from the recently published 2021 Census) showed that 1,596,675 people over 65 years of age lived in dwellings in extremely vulnerable housing conditions[2]. This means that their dwellings (owned or not) had a series of problems related to habitability, sanitation or physical safety, among others.

The evolution of the simple indicators shows no improvement, even in the most basic ones. Moreover, they are never isolated; the more serious the problems suffered (no toilet or running water, incidents in the building structure that jeopardise safety, etc.), the greater the tendency to experience other deficiencies (such as heating or a lift) that can seriously hinder a person’s day-to-day life and even condemn them to social isolation.

An obsolete housing stock

The existence of residential vulnerability is intertwined with the very make-up of the built stock. Simplistically, almost 61% of primary dwellings were built before 1990, when the average family size was much larger and one- and two-person households were comparatively uncommon. This does not imply that we are dealing with huge dwellings; many do not allow a wheelchair or walker to fit through their corridors or doorways and the interior space’s irregular layout makes living in them an obstacle course, especially for those with mobility impairments.

Added to this is the way the real estate market works: this housing cannot always be sold to gain access to other housing in better conditions. Furthermore, the existence of an adequate public rental stock or programmes such as housing exchange are mere local anecdotes in our country. Although some older people may be considered “housing-rich, cash-poor”, housing does not always fetch the sale price needed to pay for the purchase of more suitable housing, while selling to rent incurs a series of tax penalties. Attachment to place and the solidarity networks created are no small matter[3] the emotional toll of leaving familiar surroundings may appear to be the least positive decision for the older person.

It is also worth noting the rising prices of the surrounding neighbourhood, associated with processes such as gentrification and touristification, which ultimately bring about changes in the neighbourhood not only in sociological but also in economic terms. In addition to an evident rise in rent prices, the business fabric changes and leads to the disappearance of local services and shops, and their replacement by more expensive shops geared towards tourists or new high-income neighbourhood residents. This would act as unexpected costs associated with living in the area.[4].

The challenges ahead

If this is our present, the prognosis presents additional challenges. In 2050, one in three Spaniards will be over 65. While the issue of the potential fall in the proportion of wage incomes to increase pensions and other social benefits receives considerable attention, the lack of adaptation of housing and the living space to this reality does not seem to share the same fate. A large swathe of the population’s inability to accumulate financial resources will be a factor to be considered. Some positions propose private pension funds, but not all households can afford such long-term savings.

Housing will cease to be the cushion on which – we assume – older people rely today. An analysis of the evolution of ownership shows a clear downward trend: the over-65s who are not homeowners (living in rented or other forms of accommodation) increased in the period 2011-2021 from 13.3% to 17%, according to census data from the National Institute of Statistics. This may be due to the increase in the age of accessing property ownership (due to the difficulty of raising the down payment, the need to have two salaries to be able to pay the mortgage in the context of liquid relationships…), the increase in the number of years needed to pay for a home and even the effect of evictions (still present) and other associated phenomena. Nor should the effect of divorce and separation be underestimated: we are marrying later and divorcing more, which leads to a division of resources. Moreover, and bearing in mind that the inequalities suffered throughout the life cycle come to the fore in old age, it is at this stage that the inequalities experienced throughout working life, such as those related to gender or origin, will be exacerbated.

Even if our country manages to adopt the necessary reforms to maintain a strong pension system, it will need to be able to offset the lower protection experienced by those sectors of the population whose working lives have wider gaps in contributions, such as those associated with care, unemployment, the effects of the crises experienced by these generations – 2008, 2011, Covid-19 or the recent invasion of Ukraine – or because they have entered the labour market in employment schemes other than the mainstream one[5].

The percentage of so-called riders, let us not forget, is growing, as is that of the non-property-owning population, which will prevent housing from being a resource for financing care or other needs arising from old age.

For the above reasons, the elderly of the future will reach retirement with less accumulated resources and savings than today’s elderly, and with residential situations that are much more polarised than today’s. These populations, with no savings, lower pension contribution rates and most likely no home ownership, will face an ageing housing stock that is not adapted to the needs of the elderly[6] and unsuitable environments but, above all, a scenario in which income and rental prices will be completely out of kilter.

The need to safeguard housing and protect the public pension system will be more critical than ever. If reforms are implemented that reduce the future amount of pensions or the number of beneficiaries, if affordable rental housing (whether public or private) is not made available, these populations will be clearly condemned to social exclusion, with a rise in vulnerability among people and, moreover, faced with a labour market characterised by ageism.


Lebrusán, I. “Personas mayores en situación de riesgo residencial extremo en España: un diagnóstico regional”. EURE – Revista de Estudios Urbano Regionales, 48(145). 2022. via.bcn/9Fu750Pbsoq

[1] Population and Housing Census 2021. National Statistics Institute.

[2] Lebrusán, I. La vivienda en la vejez. Problemas y estrategias para envejecer en sociedad. “Politeya” Collection. Editorial CSIC [Spanish National Research Council], Madrid, 2019.

[3] Lebrusán, I. and Gómez, M. V. “The Importance of Place Attachment in the Understanding of Ageing in Place: ‘The Stones Know Me’”. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(24), 17052. 2022.

[4] Lebrusán, I. “Las dificultades para habitar en la vejez”. Documentación Social, 6. 2020. via.bcn/WPMm50PcziO

[5] Just under half a million people are registered as self-employed or under the special scheme for domestic workers. The underground economy accounts for an even higher number.

[6] Among the main residential buildings, 34.3% are not accessible, according to the National Statistics Institute’s Survey on Essential Characteristics of the Population and Dwellings, 2021.

Publicacions recomanades

  • "La vivienda en la vejez. Problemas y estrategias para envejecer en sociedad"“Politeya” Collection, CSIC, 2019.

The newsletter

Subscribe to our newsletter to keep up to date with Barcelona Metròpolis' new developments