The fact that we’re living longer is not news. But how we’re spending those extra years, perhaps, is. In many parts of the world, later life is now almost unrecognisable to how it was for our parents’ and grandparents’ generation – and a far cry from how it is portrayed in the media and in popular culture.
This report aims to give a flavour of what it means to be old, and what life is like for those in later life. Given the time span that later life now covers, the myriad experiences that people go through, and the ways these can vary depending on their own personal and cultural situation, what we present here is in no way everyone’s reality. But what we do hope to show is that it’s more nuanced than what we’ve been told before.
Later life around the world
Demographic shifts are set to fundamentally change the world as we know it. Population growth in the last century has been dramatic. In 1950 the world population was estimated at around 2.6 billion, by 2015 it had topped 7.3 billion and it is set to reach 9.7 billion by 2050.1 Six countries alone are expected to exceed 300 million people; China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan and the USA. China and India will remain the largest, comprising around 37% of the global population between them. India is expected to secure global demographic primacy in the next thirty years; increasing by more than 400 million to reach 1.6 billion in total. China’s growth may be less dramatic, increasing by 25 million to around 1.4 billion. Nigeria’s population is growing most rapidly, and is projected to surpass the USA by 2050 to become the world’s third largest country. Not every country is on the up though; the populations of a number of European countries, including Bulgaria, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Ukraine — as well as Syria and Japan — are expected to shrink.2
It’s important to look at what’s driving these changes; fertility rates, accelerating migration and increased life expectancy are all playing a part.
We’re also living much, much longer. In a study of 23 countries, the Pew Research Center found that between now and 2050, all will experience both a rise in their median age and an increase in the proportion aged over 65. Looking first at median age,3 which is a reflection of the growing number of people aged 65 and over, it’s the countries in Latin America, the Middle East and South East Asia that are set to experience double-digit change. Between 2010 and 2050 Brazil’s median age is set to rise by 14 years from 31 to 45, while Mexico will rise from 27 to 40. South Korea’s median age will rise to 53, placing it on equal footing with Japan by 2050. Such a dramatic change in the make-up of the world’s population will have profound implications for the delivery of public services, our workplaces and society more generally.
Japan has the largest share of over-60s globally (33.4% of its people) and will continue in this position in 2050, with two in five (42.4%) aged over 60. However, more dramatic change is in store for a number of other countries. For example, the share of those aged 60 and above is expected to more than double in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, and quadruple in Saudi Arabia. Even in the UK, which is ageing less rapidly than elsewhere, nearly a third (31.5%) will be over 60 by 2050, and nearly one in five people currently alive will live to see their 100th birthday.4
When is old age anyway?
Throughout life we experience a series of transitions; broadly from childhood to adulthood, with a number of stages and phases. These transitions are messy. While the moment at which someone crosses the threshold into adulthood is legally defined across the world, often chronological age is an unhelpful indicator. But thinking about the transition to adulthood as a collection of markers – like moving out of home, getting a job, getting married and having kids – doesn’t provide much clarity either; especially as the trend is to do some of these things later (if at all). Biology also doesn’t help either, given that people mature at different times.
Similarly, there is no agreed point at which an adult becomes an ‘older person’. In ancient times, Pythagoras divided life into four phases of twenty years each, with old age beginning at 60,5 but increased life expectancy means chronological age is no longer a good indicator, and there are huge variations anyway, even within relatively small geographical areas. In London, one of the wealthiest cities on earth, the London Health Observatory found that travelling eastbound on the Jubilee underground line from Westminster to Canning Town sees life expectancy drop by eight years; a year for every tube stop, and new, poorer neighbourhood.6
So as with the transition into adulthood, there are key milestones, all of which could be taken as indicators that one is getting old – retirement, pension age, becoming a grandparent. But this is also changing; in the UK, for instance, the state pension age is under constant review and will increase to 67 between 2026 and 2028. Thinking about capabilities is also unhelpful; what is easy for one 60-year-old, may be a challenge for many others.
This complexity colours people’s perceptions of when someone is considered to be old. Findings from the European Social Survey show that there is huge variation across Europe on when these markers are set, depending on the respondent’s gender and the country where they live. For instance, women believe that the end of youth takes place three years later than men. In the UK, youth is perceived to end at 35 with old age beginning at 59,7 while people in Greece think old age starts at 68, compared to people in Turkey who say some ten years earlier.
It is perhaps no surprise though, that the biggest determinant of what someone thinks of as being old is their own age; the older we get, the more likely we are to define old as someone older than ourselves. In our own research we found that, globally, we believe that people can be considered old when they reach 66 – close to the retirement age in a considerable number of countries around the world. However, the older you are yourself, the more likely you are to think that old age comes later in life.
Those who are 16-24 believe that old age is reached at 61, aged 25-34 you think it is when you are 63, 35-44 year olds have it at 67, the 45-54s say 69 and for those aged 55-64 and on the cusp of later life, old age doesn’t start until you’re 72. There is also some variation between the countries, which hinges on life expectancy but also the prevailing cultural context. In Spain you will only be considered old when you reach the age of 74, whereas in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, old age comes decades earlier (55 and 56 respectively). This finding is confirmed by multiple other studies as well.8
This has been further reinforced by our qualitative work for this report. Participants – regardless of whether they are in their fifties or their eighties – do not see themselves as old. As one explained: “I mean, I’m not elderly. I’m only 74 really. I mean, I don’t think you’re elderly until you’re in your late 70s nowadays, because of course everybody’s kept alive with drugs”. Similarly, another stated that: “I still don’t even myself think I’m old. To me, an old person is collecting old-age pension, probably in their 80s now.”
It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that we tend to think of ourselves as younger (and healthier) than we actually are. For instance, the English Longitudinal Survey of Ageing finds most of us feel younger than our actual age. However, there were some demographic factors which affect this. For instance, both those who were wealthier and healthier were more likely to think that old age starts later in life. Plus, it’s not just that participants felt younger – many actively wanted to be younger as well. The mean desired age is 42.4 years old – around a quarter of a century (23 years) younger than the actual mean age of the sample. However, this desire to be younger was most typically found in those feeling the effects of ageing, and reporting poorer self-perceived health. While around half of all American adults say they feel younger than their age, this figure rises to three in five (61%) of all Boomers (born before 1965). In fact, the typical Boomer feels nine years younger than their chronological age.9
All this is not just of casual interest, feeling younger and feeling satisfied with one’s ageing has a real – and positive – impact on health. Those who identify as feeling younger than their chronological age have better self-perceived health than those who don’t – perhaps related to internalised prejudices about what it means to be older. On the other hand, the same study found that those who would prefer to be younger than they are have worse self-perceived health than others.10
On average, those who are negative about old age die 7.5 years before those who are positive. Across a number of studies, there is consensus that such positive self-perceptions of ageing can play an important role in sustaining social engagement, and have positive effects on self-esteem and wellbeing, even boosting biophysical functioning.11
The opposite is also true, which is why tackling negative stereotypes about old age is important. An analysis of data from the 2016 Irish Longitudinal Survey of Ageing has highlighted how negative perceptions of later life predict the onset and persistence of depression and anxiety in older adults.12 Three key reasons were given for this. Firstly, by thinking that ageing will be a negative process, people will have a more pessimistic vision of their own future and expect to face difficulties in their daily lives and relationships as they age. This then manifests itself as stress, depression and anxiety. Secondly, it is important to bear in mind the link between mental and physical health. Negative perceptions of the ageing process could result in a more rapid decline in health, due to lower levels of engagement in preventative and health-promoting activities;13 if you expect old age to be difficult, then you won’t be empowered to try and make it otherwise. Building on this, it has been argued that a negative image of later life could delay people seeking help for health problems, instead, just choosing to attribute them to old age.14 Thirdly, the exposure to, and subsequent processing and interpretation of negative ageing stereotypes by older adults may act as environmental stressors, which are linked with psychiatric conditions.15 Taken together, this powerful cocktail of factors creates something of a self-fulfilling prophecy – “I will be depressed when I am old”.16
But regardless of how old people feel – or actually are – we know that there is great variation in this period we lump together into ‘later life’. For example, old age is often conceptualised as three phases: the young old (approximately 65-74), the middle old (aged 75-84) and old old (over 85), but these phases are not distinct, and overlap. Indeed, this group can encompass three generations of a family, all at very different stages of their lives. Someone at the traditional point of retirement is very different in ability and outlook to someone of an age where they are considered to be ‘old’. Germaine Greer wrote that “nobody ages like anybody else”,17 while the novelist, Penelope Lively, said of her demographic that they have “nothing much in common except the accretion of years, a historical context, and a generous range of ailments”.18 The experience is unique; we age as individuals, shaped by our own social contexts.