Centre for Ageing Better
18 Oct 2019
Our Evidence Manager, Aideen Young, asks whether being ‘old’ or ‘young’ should be thought of in terms of how long you still have to live.
In 1991, around one in six people in the UK (15.9%) were aged 65 years and over. By 2017, this proportion was almost one in five (18.2%) and it is projected to reach around one in four (24%) by 2037. (The proportions for men in England are shown below).
Trends like this are used routinely to demonstrate that the UK population is ageing. Certainly, it demonstrates that more of us are aged 65 and above than before. But does it really demonstrate – as intended – that we are more and more a nation of old people?
The use of 65 as a marker of ‘old age’ assumes that being 65 today means the same as it did 30 years ago or will in 30 years’ time. It assumes that we are ‘old’ at a fixed chronological age – and that regardless of changes in life expectancy, we will always be ‘old’ at 65. And why 65 anyway?
In a fascinating talk at ILC-UK’s recent “Reimagining Ageing” event, Professor Stuart Gietel-Basten challenged the audience to guess the date of a number of quotes. This one:
“The annuities combined with sickness are restricted to the age of 65, since that may be chosen as the period at which support in old age becomes necessary”
…Comes from a select committee report of 1825!
Adjusting to our longer lives demands a wholesale rethink of how we understand, and talk about, age.
The age of 65 is used to this day to calculate old age dependency ratios – which demonstrate that we are on the verge of financial disaster as a society, with too few people of working age to “support” a dependent older population.
Well, 65 might well have been old in 1825 but it is no longer so today. The remaining life expectancy of a 65-year-old male in England in 1825 was about 11 years; today it is almost 19 years. We need a completely new way of thinking about age. What if we thought about being ‘old’ or ‘young’ not in terms of how long you’ve lived but in terms of how long you still have to live? This was the topic of the “Reimagining Ageing” event.
I took estimated and projected population data from the ONS, as well as estimates of period life expectancy to calculate the proportion of males in England in different years, who had 15, 20 or 25 years or less still to live.
These calculations show something quite different to the steady year-on-year increase in the proportion of the population aged 65 and over. Instead, we see that in 1991 and 50 years later in 2040, about 80% of men in England have (or are projected to have) at least 20 years still ahead of them; 74% of men in 1991 and in 2040 have at least 25 years.
Our changing age structure is undeniable: there are increasing numbers of people aged 65 and over than ever before because our life expectancy is increasing and more of us are living longer. So, more of us may have bigger ages, but it doesn’t make us old. Old age is more accurately understood to be the latter stage of the human lifespan. And with that in mind, we see that society is no older than it has been for 50 years and probably more.
We can apply the same thinking to our working lives. People who retire at 55 still have 15 years of working life at 40 and are considered to be in the prime of their working lives. As life expectancy increases and the structure of the workforce changes, many people will be working to 70 and beyond. Those 70-year-old workers had 15 years of working life left when they were 55. So why would you consider that 55-year-old to be past it, undeserving of opportunities and development in the workplace? That 55-year-old worker is still in the prime of their working life and needs to be treated accordingly.
Adjusting to our longer lives doesn’t just require changes to our infrastructure, workplaces or health services – it also demands a wholesale rethink of how we understand, and talk about, age. In 1950, a 65-year-old might reasonably have been thought of as “old” but today it would be more sensible to consider them to be in middle age. Age is relative; understanding this will help us reject ageist stereotypes and make the most of our extra years.