By 2050, the world will have more than two billion people over the age of 60. It’s an incredible demographic shift. We are living much longer than previous generations – a girl born in 1914 in England had a 1% chance of living to 100. A child born in the West today has a more than 50 per cent chance of living to be over 105.
People’s perceptions and experiences of growing old are also markedly different from their grandparents’ generation, and vary greatly across countries and cultures, as this report reminds us.
Take for example the age at which people are considered to be ‘old’ – people in Saudi Arabia think it’s 55, those in Germany 62, and in Spain it’s 74 – a range of 19 years. These views will of course be driven by life expectancy and the cultural context of these countries, but are also shaped by age itself, as this report shows. The older you are, the more likely you are to think that old age comes later in life, with 16-24s considering old age to begin at 61, and 55-64-year-olds at 72, more than a decade later.
Few people in their 50s and 60s would label themselves as ‘old’, and I know several people in their 70s and 80s who still don’t think of themselves as old. The label of old age feels increasingly irrelevant as we enjoy longer and fuller lives, bound less to traditional life stages such as study, work and retirement.
And perceptions matter, as this report highlights. Feeling younger and having a more positive attitude to age and ageing are associated with better health outcomes. People who are negative about old age die around 7.5 years before those who are positive. Perceptions of older age, it seems, are a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is worrying then that globally, nearly one in five people don’t expect to be fit and healthy in old age. In Japan this rises to nearly a third of people, and in South Korea to more than half.
The truth is, one of the biggest challenges we face when it comes to age is the way we think and talk about old age. When asked, a huge 87% of people in Japan said that the growing number of older people is a “major problem”. Nearly half of people in France and a quarter of people in the US agreed. Public and political discourse focuses on the challenges and costs of an ageing population, and frequently characterises older people as ‘frail’ and ‘lonely’ – two of the three most common descriptors for older people cited in this research.
In fact, ageing and growing older can present very many opportunities – for individuals and for society. Take for example, that people in their 70s are more satisfied with their lives than any other age group. Or that people are increasingly retraining and reinventing their careers in later life, providing vital care for loved ones including grandchildren, and volunteering. In doing so, they are continuing to contribute both financially and socially to society. Over-50s are responsible for a significant chunk of household expenditure globally. If the ‘silver pound’ were a sovereign nation, it would be the third largest economy in the world.
It is 50 years since US gerontologist Robert N Butler coined the phrase ‘age-ism’ and it is an issue that we have still failed to address. Ageism, like all forms of discrimination, is pernicious.
Over-50s in the UK are still the most likely to fall out of work involuntarily and struggle more than younger age groups to get back in. Our housing does not enable us to remain independent in later life, and very few accessible and affordable options are being built. There is a massive gulf in the experiences of later life between rich and poor and little sign that this gap is shrinking. Positive older role models are still largely absent from our screens, and products marketed to older age groups look clinical and are stigmatising.
Given the huge increases in longevity, it is time to tackle these issues. There are signs that change is beginning. We can see signs that advertisers and brands are waking up to the changing age profile of their customers, for example, by using older models alongside young. The savvier companies are recognising the value of older employees as a skilled and experienced part of their workforce, and in turn are starting to make their workplaces more flexible and supportive, with practices that are age-inclusive.
Changing our own and society’s attitudes to ageing is essential if we are to make some of the more fundamental changes in how we live, work and play. This will require action from governments and business, to media and creative industries, communities and ourselves. And the time to act is now – our future selves depend on it.
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