Census 2021: One-third of UK armed forces veterans are more than 80 years old

Former service members likely to be older than rest of the population due to national conscription in 1940s and 1950s

The Founder's Day Parade is marked every year at Royal Hospital Chelsea which serves as a retirement and nursing home for several hundred British Army veterans: Getty
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About one third of UK armed forces veterans living in England and Wales are aged 80 or more, and are more likely to be white and Christian than the rest of the population, new figures showed.

The findings have been published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the latest release of data from the 2021 census, which have revealed the changing make-up of the UK.

It shows that 32 per cent of veterans were aged 80 or more on the day of the census, compared with 5 per cent of the non-veteran population.

The figures also show the vast majority of veterans in England and Wales (96 per cent) identify as white, compared with 83 per cent for the non-veteran population.

After adjusting the data to assume the same age, sex and regional location for non-veterans as for veterans, the ONS found the gap was smaller but still apparent, with 90 per cent of non-veterans identifying as white compared with 96 per cent of veterans.

About two-thirds of veterans (64 per cent) described themselves as Christian in the census, compared with 48 per cent of non-veterans.

The adjusted estimates are 64 per cent and 58 per cent respectively, suggesting this difference is not just to do with age, sex or regional structure of the veteran population.

As a result of their advancing years, their health tends to be worse than the general population but that gap narrows considerably when adjusted for age, sex and location.

The census was completed by more than 24 million households across England and Wales on March 21 2021, and was the first-of-its-kind to collect data on people who have previously served in the UK armed forces.

Initial findings published last year showed that 4 per cent of residents in England and Wales aged 16 and more had served, or 1.9 million people.

The new data provides a more detailed breakdown of the veteran population and looks at factors such as age, religion and ethnicity.

The figures reflect the legacy of the long period of War Service and National Service that ran in the UK between 1939 and 1960, the ONS said.

National Service was a system of conscription that required healthy males aged 17 to 21 to serve in the armed forces for between 18 months and two years.

It was phased out gradually in the late 1950s, meaning the last surviving people to have done National Service will now be well into their 80s.

While most veterans in England and Wales were born in the UK (94 per cent), around one in six (17 per cent) said they did not currently hold a passport.

Some 2 per cent (39,420 veterans) were born in other Commonwealth nations, with a similar proportion born in Nepal and Ireland, 0.6 per cent and 0.5 per cent, or 10,240 and 9,480 respectively.

Rich Pereira, head of demography at the ONS, said that the data gives a greater understanding of the make-up of veterans in the UK

“Many of this group will be those who took part in National Service and/or served in Second World War. Our data also explores how veterans compare to those who are not veterans with regard to health, religion and ethnicity.

“Today’s insight is crucial for the planning of support and services for veterans and their families.”

The difference could reflect a number of factors, including long-term trends in immigration and nationality law and the tendency of different groups to join the armed forces, the ONS said.

Veterans are less likely to say they are single — never married or in a civil partnership — than non-veterans, 15 per cent compared with 39 per cent.

Once non-veteran estimates were adjusted for age, sex and location, there were no notable differences in the sexual orientation figures between veterans and non-veterans.

Updated: February 03, 2023, 3:15 PM