The new old age
Retirement once meant retreating to the garden but as life expectancy increases, is it time for a rethink of the golden years, asks Katie Byrne
If you had a conceivable chance of living until 100, would you be in a rush to get married by the age of 30? If you thought you could live until the age of 90, would you still aim to retire at 65?
These are the sort of questions that Sarah Harper, Professor of Gerontology (the study of old age) at Oxford University, raised when she led a thought-provoking discussion on ageing and society at the Hay Festival last month.
According to Prof Harper, we are gaining roughly 2.5 years of life expectancy per decade, or 15 minutes an hour. “Predictions suggest that, of the babies that are currently being born, the real life expectancy will be 104,” she said. “In Japan it is 107.”
Compare this to the average life expectancy in Ireland 100 years ago: 53.
We often hear about increasing life expectancy in the same breath as residential care homes, pension plans and Alzheimer’s disease but, as Prof Harper points out, it’s time we all started thinking about how this phenomenon is going to affect the way we live “these very long lives”, at every stage of our life.
Dominic Campbell, co-founder of Creative Aging International, agrees. “We need to change the stories we tell ourselves about what old age is because it’s a whole new world and a whole new potential,” he says. “If you get to 50 and you have a fairly respectable chance of living another 40 years fairly healthily, what are you going to do with them?”
Campbell says increased life expectancy has given rise to the trend for late-in-life learning and over-60s returning to college. Elsewhere, there has been a spike in the number of older adults mastering musical instruments.
Yet, in many ways, we continue to live in a culture that tells us that life starts to wind down after the age of 65. Life expectancy is rising dramatically but the age of retirement is only rising incrementally. The state retirement age has increased from 65 to 66, and will continue to increase — from 66 to 67 in 2021 and from 67 to 68 in 2028 — yet the mandatory retirement age in certain public sector occupations in Ireland and age discrimination within the job market are still hot button issues.
“If you are 60 years old today, you have a 50pc chance of living to 90,” says Dr Edward Kelly, founder of The Third Act organisation. “Why would you interrupt such a life with retirement at age 65? Retirement comes from the French verb retirer which means to withdraw to a place of safety and seclusion — hardly a great place to live out 25-30 years of life.”
Granted, some people look forward to retiring at 66 but many more feel like they have no choice in the matter. In a 2014 survey that explored retirement readiness in Ireland, 61pc of participants said they felt that they had more to contribute to the workforce.
Similarly, there is an entire demographic of self-employed over-60s who don’t even consider retirement age. Pilates, yoga and somatic movement coach Alison Haughton (62) from Dublin says she has no intention of retiring any time soon. “I’m lucky,” she says. “I love what I do. I might go into a class feeling tired and I feel invigorated afterwards.”
“You can’t say enough for life experience,” she adds. “I know it’s really important that jobs are given to younger people but I also feel that Western society has lost contact with tapping into the wisdom of older people. If you look at different cultures and civilisations, they really respect wise older people. Our attitude is: ‘They’re old — brush them aside’.”
Former rally driver Rosemary Smith is of the same opinion. “The trick is to stay active,” she says. “Some people retire and just potter around the garden. That’s fine if that’s what they want, but in order to stay young, your brain has to be active. I’m always plotting and planning for the next thing.”
Smith, who is in her late seventies, continues to run a driving school and she attributes much of her vivacity to regular contact with younger people. “It’s also important to cherish your friends — women especially,” she adds. “They can get so wrapped up in their husbands and their children but men die before women so it’s important to work on your friendships too.”
Of course, that’s assuming that the vow of ‘until death do us part’ is honoured. As Prof Harper pointed out during her talk, increased longevity will have a knock-on effect on the institution of marriage. “Do people want to be together 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100 years?” she asked.
Closer to home, couples counsellor David Kavanagh has encountered many younger clients who are struggling with this realisation.
“I have people in their late thirties and forties, who might have been with their partner from the age of 17, 18 or 19, coming into my office and asking, ‘Is this it?’
“Marriage as an institution needs to be looked at again by society,” he adds. “We are expecting people with very limited knowledge of each other to make this commitment and form a legal contract, and we expect those two people to live together, without difficulty, for the next 40 or 50 years.”
Prof Harper believes that divorce rates will spike in line with increasing life spans. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the life expectancy of a woman’s eggs so while it may seem prudent to delay marriage from a life expectancy point of view, it’s more likely that the next generation will embrace the concept of the ‘starter marriage’ instead.
The generational contract also has to be reconsidered, says Campbell.
“It used to be that you worked and put all your fluid money into a house and then, when you died, it was handed over to your children. But if you’re 90 and your kids are 70 and their kids are 50 and their kids are 30 and their kids are 10, how does that relationship between the generations work?”
This dovetails with the emergence of what is known as the SKI (Spending Kids Inheritance) set — a group of older adults who are spending the money that they had previously set aside for their children on holidays and luxury items.
“The economy is now driven by the ageing population,” adds Campbell. “In the US, the silver economy is worth $7.2 trillion — they have the largest amount of disposable income in the history of the world ever, for any demographic.”
It’s clear then that the silver economy is a golden opportunity for marketers, but will increased life expectancy open up other markets too?
There are a number of organisations working hard to redefine older age as a period of reinvention rather than obsolescence; will middle age undergo a similar transformation?
“The traditional arc of our lives has been completely altered by longevity,” says Dr Kelly.
“As a result, middle age has to be redefined. It probably now starts in the early 50s. That said, is it a stage of life or a state of mind or some mix of both?”
“We used to carry along on the traditional arc: growing up, adulthood, retirement and old age, and we all knew where we were and how we ought to behave,” he continues.
“It’s more difficult now. A new gift of time is good news but it does require more individual consciousness, ie not just what should I be doing according to traditional social norms, but what do I want for myself?”
For more information, see thethirdact.ie and creativeageinginternational.com