2.1 Expectations of later life
2.2 Older and happier?
2.3 Alone together?
2.4 Will you still love me when I’m 64?
2.5 The rise and rise of the silver surfer?
2.6 The silver pound, dollar & euro
2.7 A ripe old age? Health and ageing
2.8 Are we ready for change?
2.9 We are wrong
Expectations of later life
Popular portrayals of people in later life – as outlined in the next chapter – are in stark contrast with the lived experience for many. But before delving into some of the facts and figures, it’s perhaps instructive to look at our expectations about later life by way of comparison. Overall, we are downbeat about old age – with only a third around the world saying that they are looking forward to their old age (nearly two-thirds say they are not). There are considerable differences by country; in India, 73% say they are looking forward to old age, while in Hungary only 7% say the same. Those in Turkey, Poland and Saudi Arabia are among the more optimistic about ageing, among those surveyed (67%, 62% and 58% respectively say they are looking forward to old age). Participants in these countries, alongside India, are also among the most likely to think that older people get the respect they deserve. In contrast, only one in ten of those in Japan are looking forward to old age, with Spain and Chile only marginally more optimistic about it (15%).
When asked what’s best about getting old, most of us mention freedom to do different things with our time – to spend with friends and family, for hobbies or leisure and for holidays and travel. Most frequently we mention time with friends and family – something people of all ages say would make them happier.19 Europeans look forward to giving up work more than those from elsewhere – for instance 42% of those in the UK and France, and 34% for Belgians, compared to just 26% globally.
In contrast, we think the worst aspects of growing old are related to losing the things we currently have. Globally, we are worried that we won’t have enough money to live on. While this is reflected across the countries we looked at, it is a particular worry for those in Russia (46%) and South Africa (41%). We also worry about worsening health – losing mobility and memory, and the limitations imposed on us by our advancing years.
Older and happier?
But now to the reality of later life. Despite our concerns, we find that those in later life are some of the happiest in society; old age really is golden. Most Western studies show lifetime happiness as a shallow bowl, with people in their 40s and 50s least happy. Data produced by the Office for National Statistics into personal wellbeing shows that, from the age of 65 until at least our mid-70s, levels of personal wellbeing look very positive. People in this age bracket give higher ratings that the things they do are worthwhile, and higher happiness scores.20 While happiness levels drop off again for those in their mid-eighties and above, in general, the happiness ratings of those in later life are in stark contrast to those who are younger. To illustrate, those aged 40-59 report the lowest levels of life satisfaction and the highest levels of anxiety – perhaps a result of often having to care for children and ageing relatives at the same time, and balancing both of these with work. This isn’t just a UK phenomenon; data from the US also shows how those in later life are happier; overall, about 33% of Americans reported being very happy at age 88, versus about 24% of those aged 18 to their early 20s.21 These happiness levels could have their roots in how people in later life think about things. Our Global Trends Survey data shows over half of those aged 60-64 (57%) agree that the important thing is to enjoy life today, tomorrow will take care of itself – a roughly similar proportion (55%) of those aged 16-24 feel the same.
Turning now to how we live, a third (32%) of all people aged 65 and above in the UK live alone – around 3.64 million in total and nearly 70% of these are women.22 In Japan, this figure is 6.24 million people,23 in Germany over a third (33.7%) and in Finland the proportion is as high as two in five (39.5%).24 The gender disparity
is partly to do with life expectancy differentials – women tend to live longer than men, so it follows that they are more likely to live alone in later life.
But the rising number of older, single households is also being fuelled by rising divorce rates. In England and Wales, for instance, overall divorce is in decline – data from the ONS shows that, between 2005 and 2015, there was a 28 percentage point fall in the number of divorces. But older people are bucking the trend. In the same period, the number of men aged 65 and above who divorced went up by 23% and the number of women by 38%.25 There’s something similar happening in the US, too. Many hypotheses have been put forward to try and explain the rise of ‘silver splicers’ – from the increased economic independence of women, through to rising longevity prompting panicked thoughts of ‘do I really want to spend another 30-odd years with this person?’ – but regardless of its roots, the increasing divorce rate partly explains why there are rising numbers of people in later life living alone.
Will you still love me when I’m 64?
Work recently undertaken in the US and elsewhere has shown sex in old age matters. Two in five (40%) of those aged between 65 and 80 are sexually active, and nearly three quarters of those in this age band have a romantic partner. Regardless of whether they are currently sexually active, nearly two thirds of those surveyed say that they are interested in sex, and more than half say sex is important to their quality of life.26 Similarly, work undertaken in the UK has found that around half (52%) of those aged over 65 feel that they do not have enough sex, and a third are happy to have sex on a first date. It also found that one in ten of the over-75s have had multiple sexual partners since turning 65.27 Focusing in on women, four in five (83%) agree that sexual fulfilment is not just for the young, and half (54%) say that they will be sexually active throughout their life.28
The generation who came of age during the Summer of Love have carried forward their liberal attitudes, which perhaps explains the rise of sexually transmitted infections. In England, a report by the Chief Medical Officer showed that STI diagnoses in people aged between 50 and 70 have risen by more than a third over the last decade. We can see the same pattern in the US, where STIs are on the rise among people of all ages.29
Even those who aren’t looking for a good time are at least looking for companionship in their later years. There are now NGOs in conservative India aiming to find love and companionship for those in later life. For instance, the programme ‘Senior Citizen Matrimony’ collects a profile of widows and widowers and brings them together in order that they can have a better, less lonely life.
Good news stories like this aside, there is no doubt that you are more likely to live alone as you age, with loneliness and isolation a common potential side effect of this (and something that is mentioned by one in five in our survey when asked what concerns them about old age). In the UK, 7-17% of older adults are affected by isolation, which can contribute towards depression, dementia and poor cardiovascular health, as well as increased rates of emergency hospital admissions.30 There are, however, many other factors aside from living alone, which may contribute towards loneliness in later life – for instance retirement from work, reduced mobility, or bereavement, to name a few.
The rise and rise of the silver surfer?
Across the world, rates of internet use among older people have risen dramatically in the last decade, yet in the UK, for example, of the 4.8 million adults who have never used the internet, 3.8 million are aged 65+. Among those aged 75+, 59% are non-users.31
That said, this gap is narrowing, in part thanks to initiatives like the Centre for Ageing Better’s programme on digital inclusion, and other schemes like Barclay’s Digital Eagles.32 But this is a generalisation, and there are big differences within these age groups, with the oldest women less likely to use the internet (38% are users, compared with 51% of men aged 75+).33 Not surprisingly, usage increases with wealth, with less engagement among those living in more deprived areas.34
Our research shows that older people are using the internet to communicate, to find information about goods and services, for reading and accessing services related to travel, for example. But other research shows no evidence that the internet compensates for lack of physical access to services for those who find this difficult.35
But while there is still a gap to be closed, there is no denying that the current generation of those in later life are more connected than ever, and recognise the benefits that technology can bring as much as younger people do. What’s more, their views on this aren’t that different to younger generations. According to work undertaken by the Age of No Retirement, only slightly more young people aged 18-24 believe that ‘the internet is part of my life, I’d miss it terribly if it weren’t there’ than those aged 64 and above (89% versus 84%).36 Most (73%) women over 55 hate the way that they are patronised when it comes to technology.37
Indeed, examining the data from our Global Trends Survey38 helps to shine a light on the changing attitudes of the older generation towards technology. Across a variety of measures, we find that older people are more likely to be techno-optimists, and less likely than the young to agree that technological progress might destroy our lives. For instance, more of those aged 16-24 globally agree about the threat of technology compared to those aged 60-64 (53% v 44%). As always, region matters – this difference is entirely driven by location, with those online in emerging markets much more likely to agree that technological progress might destroy our lives – in more established markets, we find that opinions are broadly similar regardless of age. We see the same inversion of expectation around the role of the internet and sex; younger people are more likely to say the internet is making their expectations about sex unrealistic. The most prurient generation here are those in the middle – 25 to 44-year-olds (who have kids!).
The silver pound, dollar & euro
Money is one of our main worries – at any age. The flipside of living longer is the additional costs, as pensions are drawn for longer and the costs of health and social care mount. In OECD countries, 12.6% of those aged over 65 live in relative income poverty (below half the national median equivalised household income), compared with 11.4% for the population as a whole. If we single out the UK, 16% of pensioners still live in poverty,39 despite the ‘triple lock’ guarantee to increase and protect their income (introduced in 2011 by the coalition government, the triple lock guarantees that the basic state pension will rise by a minimum of either 2.5%, the rate of inflation or average earnings growth, whichever is largest).
In most countries age poverty is exacerbated by the gender imbalance in life expectancy, since many of the oldest women alive today often did not work outside the home, or earned less than men and are consequently receiving lower retirement benefits.
Overall, incomes among older people are diverse. In the UK the over-50s (around a third of the population) account for about 47% of all UK consumer spending (up from 41% in 2003), worth £320 billion a year.40 InnovateUK points out that this should be driving business decisions about things as diverse as age-neutral marketing (for people who do not feel their age, or do not want to be defined by it), product development (those who can overcome or delay ageing) as well as packaging (the average 70-year-old has the grip strength of a 10-year-old child).41 But as we will see in subsequent chapters, the needs of older consumers are far from being met: most advertising features the under-40s, when in fact the over-40s spend most.
As we are living and spending longer, we are also working longer. In historical terms, retirement is a relatively recent idea. Germany was first to introduce a social insurance programme, and retirement age was set at 70. Employment rates for older people vary across the world, highest in Iceland, South Korea and Mexico, and among the lowest in Spain, France, Hungary, Belarus and the Slovak Republic.42 Encouraging employment among older people can bring significant economic benefits, increasing GDP and reducing welfare bills, as well as providing people with a sense of purpose.
In Britain, record employment in the last five years has coincided with record levels of happiness – despite concern about low wages. This reflects other studies where employment has been shown as something which can give people a purpose and contribute towards wellbeing.43
Outside work, extra years give people the opportunity to pursue new activities; for example, in a UK survey, 73% of over-65s have been involved in leisure activities and hobbies in the last two weeks.44 In fact, 76% of over-65s said they were satisfied with their leisure activities and hobbies; including 34% who were ‘very satisfied’, which is higher than any other age group except 16 to 24-year-olds (35%).44
One key way in which those in later life spend their time is volunteering. Data from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations shows that women aged 65-74 are among the most likely age group to volunteer – second only to women aged 16-24.45 Organisations are trying to tap into this. For instance, in the UK, NESTA and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has launched the Second Half Fund,46 which aims to grow 13 ambitious social innovations by tapping into the skills and expertise of those aged 50 and over. Meanwhile, the Centre for Ageing Better has recently launched a fund to find new models of supporting older volunteers, including those who are traditionally less likely to volunteer, such as those from lower incomes and BME backgrounds. In India, Senior Citizens Bangalore involves those in later life devoting their time to distributing food to schools, medicines to the elderly, tending to patients with terminal illnesses and offering scholarships to those who would be otherwise unable to afford an education.47
Of course, volunteering doesn’t just benefit wider society, but also the volunteers themselves. An analysis of data taken from the English Longitudinal Survey of Ageing found that those in work (whether paid or voluntary) had higher levels of wellbeing than those who did not participate in these activities. Feeling rewarded for the effort you make also plays a part in boosting wellbeing; carers, volunteers and those in paid work who felt adequately rewarded for their activities have better wellbeing than those who were not participating in those activities.
A ripe old age? Health and ageing
The older you get, the more likely you are to experience one or more long-term health conditions. Healthy life expectancy varies across the world, in many countries there are huge inequalities by area. In Britain, at birth, females in relatively affluent Richmond upon Thames in London can expect to live 17.8 more years in good health than in Manchester (72.2 years compared with 54.4).48 But there is no doubt that satisfaction with health is related to age, with 59.5% of 16 to 24-year-olds reporting they were satisfied with their health, compared with just 40.1% of the over-75s.
In contrast to this, there is actually less evidence of moderate mental health illness among those 65 or over than among younger people.49 However, Alastair Burns, National Clinical Director for dementia and older people’s mental health at NHS England has noted that mental health illness among older people is significantly under-diagnosed – it may be we simply ignore or take for granted mental illness among the old.
Globally, most people we surveyed across 30 countries expect to be fit and healthy when they grow old (57%). There are important variations between cultures – Colombians and Argentinians are the most positive about their health in old age, with almost nine in ten here expecting to be fit and healthy in their later years. This positive view about expected health in old age is a trend across all Latin American countries, with over eight in ten surveyed across South America feeling this. Those in China and Malaysia are similarly likely to feel this way (88% and 85%). In contrast those in South Korea, France, Japan and Belgium are much less optimistic about their health in the future – this is despite the fact that these countries are among those with the highest life expectancy in the world.
But unfortunately, for many, such negativity about our health in old age is well founded. As we are living longer it is no surprise that the proportion of carers in society is increasing, and people are caring for longer and later in their lives. The GP Patient Survey shows that, in England, 20% of those aged 65-74 have caring responsibilities (compared with 17% overall), and that they are more likely to do this for 50 or more hours a week.50 Meanwhile, across the UK as a whole, peak caring age is between 50-64 when one in five people are carers. They often go unidentified because they do not recognise themselves as carers, and 68.8% of older carers say their responsibilities have an adverse effect on their mental health.51 The strain on carers reflects the huge pressure on the social care system in countries with ageing populations, with increasing numbers of people not getting the help they need.
It’s also important to think about where this care comes from. Nearly six in ten around the world believe that it is the responsibility of younger relatives to provide care as people age. Interestingly, older people are less likely to agree with this: only 49% of those aged 55-64 agree, compared to 57% overall. This could be because they do not want to think of themselves as burdening younger relatives, or because they are better prepared for the realities of old age, or they may simply want to make different choices about their care as they age.
There are also significant country differences worth pulling out; four in five (82%) of those in China agree about the duty of the young to care for the old, compared to just a quarter (23%) in Japan and South Korea. Similarly, only a quarter (24%) of Swedes agree with this proposition; as a country with a relatively high level of taxation and a well-established social security system, it may be that citizens there feel it is less the role of the family to provide care, and more the role of the state.
Are we ready for change?
Ageing societies are set to be one of the most transformative changes of the twenty-first century, with wide-ranging implications relating to social and family structures, employment and finances, health and wellbeing, social care and support, housing and the demand for goods and services.
The extent to which the ageing population is seen as a negative issue varies dramatically around the world. Concern about ageing is highest in south-east Asia. Here, nine in ten Japanese, eight in ten South Koreans and seven in ten Chinese describe ageing as a major problem for their country. Concern is also relatively high across Europe, with more than half of those in Germany and Spain saying this. This makes sense – levels of concern broadly match the areas where populations are ageing fastest and where the support ratios are also among the lowest (i.e. the ratio between the working-age population and the population over 65).
While most media coverage of the future focuses on technology, AI, Big Data, the rise and fall of national power, or climate change, one thing we can be virtually certain of is demographic change.
Just over half (52%) of those surveyed globally agree that they’re worried about getting old – with Brazil and China leading the charge. At the other end of the spectrum, those in South Korea are the least likely to be concerned about getting old – despite, as we have seen, their relative pessimism about ageing generally. Interestingly, the oldest of those surveyed are less concerned than younger participants (54% of those aged 25-34 are concerned versus 46% of 55 to 64-year-olds). Could it be that as later life becomes closer, we see that the reality of this phase of life is not necessarily something negative to be worried about? Or perhaps we are simply better prepared? Or, indeed it could be that we think it is too late to prepare and have started to care less?
We are wrong
Our concern is manifested in other ways, too – not least of all our wild misperceptions about how old society actually is. We asked members of the public in fourteen countries what proportion of their country’s population is over the age of 65. In every single country the average guess was much higher than reality.
In Italy, for instance, people think that 48% of the population were over 65, whereas the actual figure is less than half this, at 21%.52 There are many reasons for these misperceptions – ones which we explore fully in our longstanding series of work, The Perils of Perception53 – but frequent highlighting in the media about the ‘silver tsunami’ many nations are set to face will not have helped. However, what these misperceptions also show is just how concerned we are about our ageing populations – we tend to overstate the things that we are worried about. Growing old in a society where more people are older presents challenges that require fundamental change in how society, governments, the media and companies function. We need to understand what later life means in order to respond appropriately.