Life Begins at … ?
Estimated Time To Read: 4 minute(s) 42 seconds
If the disenfranchised spend decades in a ghostly twilight of senescence, we will all be the poorer.
Last spring, I began to realise that getting ahead of ageing had become the ultimate status symbol.
The race for the anti-ageing pill is just one consequence of the two demographic shifts that are transforming our world. Longer lifespans and declining birth-rates — as fertility plummets almost everywhere outside sub-Saharan Africa — constitute the most dramatic story of our age.
Shrinking, ageing populations may alter the balance of power between countries: notably between the US and China, the latter of which is growing old before it gets rich. Longevity will create multigenerational households and age-diverse workforces. The falling ratio of young to old will rewrite social contracts and force us to rethink the whole notion of family.
The prevailing narrative is one of gloom: that rising numbers of elderly will drag down GDP and hold governments to ransom, demanding ever-larger shares of the welfare pie. And indeed, if people continue to retire when they are only three-quarters of the way through their lives, and if large numbers are crippled with chronic disease, the burden will become unbearable.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Many Brits and Americans are already “unretiring” and going back to work. The incidence of dementia has fallen by a fifth in 20 years. When a doctor friend of mine held a flu jab clinic for his over-65 patients this winter, it was the first time most had visited the surgery in years.
The problem is that back in the 1970s, ‘early retirement’ started to be marketed as a golden time, just at the moment when life expectancy for older people was taking off.
Almost without noticing, we have created an extended middle age. “The ‘Young-Old’ are very active and healthy and productive, totally different from 30 years ago,” says Takao Suzuki, professor of gerontology at Tokyo’s JF Oberlin University, who defines Young-Old as 60 to 75 or older. “The World Health Organization defines ‘old’ as 65 but as gerontologists, our main concern is with the ‘old-old’, who are very different”.
Much of this is good news. “If you don’t consider people old just because they have reached age 65, but instead take into account how long they have left to live, then the faster the increase in life expectancy, the less ageing is actually going on,” says the Austrian demographer Sergei Scherbov, whose work suggests that in OECD countries, most baby boomers are “middle aged” into their mid-70s. He argues strongly for linking pension ages to life expectancy and getting people to work for longer.
The problem is that back in the 1970s, “early retirement” started to be marketed as a golden time, just at the moment when life expectancy for older people was taking off. This was in large part because of the decline of smoking, which massively reduced deaths from heart attack and stroke. Life expectancy at 65 rose 20 times faster between 1970 and 2011 than it had done between 1841 and 1970. It’s now levelling off again in the UK and US, partly due to obesity.
Society hasn’t caught up. Many employers remain reluctant to hire people over 50, assuming they are dull plodders. Well-meaning campaigners sometimes reinforce this idea when they insist that the over-50s must have flexible, part-time work options from their first day on the job. This inadvertently suggests that the over-50s are somehow weaker, when we should be fighting to show that they are just as good as their younger colleagues.
According to the Harvard Business Review, older entrepreneurs have a much higher success rate than younger ones. The average age of founders of the highest-growth US start-ups is now 45, or 47 if you remove social media companies. The carmaker BMW boosted productivity by 7 per cent, and saw absenteeism fall from 7 to 2 per cent, when it created a production line for skilled workers over 50 and improved conditions in consultation with the workforce.
Many car companies are now giving workers exoskeleton suits — metal frames with motorised muscles — which help with the heavy lifting. Such inventions will revolutionise our ability to sustain physical tasks in all sorts of areas.
But the BMW story is not just about technology: it’s also about belonging. I think the men worked faster partly because they felt like a vital part of the company’s future, not a bunch of guys on their way out.
Work can confer a vital sense of purpose and social connection. On the islands of Ikaria in Greece and Okinawa in Japan, where people live exceptionally long lives with low levels of stroke and dementia, they continue to fish or look after grandchildren until they die. In the west, we create bingo games or coffee mornings to forestall loneliness — but we forget to help people feel needed.
“I like being useful,” says Mrs Miyao, 88, a former seamstress who lives in Edogawa, Tokyo. With eight other ladies, Mrs Miyao is busy fitting cleaning brushes on to handles in one of Japan’s Silver Centres, which find part-time work for older people.
The work saves the local factory time, and Fumio Takengi, the centre’s director, says it also promotes a sense of ikigai, or “reason for being”. “Ninety-three per cent of our members are very healthy,” Takengi told me. “We believe that our system helps keep them that way.”
Value of wisdom and experience
The value of wisdom and experience can show up in unexpected ways. As one of just a handful of psychiatrists in Zimbabwe, Dixon Chibanda realised that he and his colleagues would be unable to provide enough mental health support unless they identified and trained counsellors who could work in the villages.
The most effective counsellors turned out to be grandmothers. They had the three qualities Dr Chibanda valued most: listening skills, empathy and an ability to reflect. Astonishingly, a study showed that the patients who received six one-to-one therapy sessions from the trained grandmothers had a lower incidence of depression and anxiety after six months than those who had experienced standard care.
The Zimbabwean grandmothers are not the only ones with the ability and vocation to help others. Older people can make excellent mentors, teachers and social workers. When there are so many societal problems to fix, why don’t we put the two together? Some charities already do this, such as Experience Corps in the US and HelpForce in the UK. But why not consider a national programme?
There is a multitude of ways in which we can improve our own odds of enjoying the time we have left. But until we abolish bad luck, we must also improve the way we look after the Old-Old.