The Challenge of Increasing Life Spans for Employment and Pension Schemes: An Open Letter to All Those Who Are, or Will Be, 65

Dear Madam, Dear Sir,
May I draw to your attention an issue that is constantly being talked about in the press, is on the lips of almost every politician and economist, something that you have probably had occasion to discuss even with your next-door neighbour: namely, that population ageing in industrialized countries, and in the long run in all other countries as well, is one of the major problems of our time.
Not true, I am afraid. Believing this is akin to attempting to drive a car with your eyes glued to the rear-view mirror.
In reality, what we are witnessing is a spectacular lengthening of the average lifespan which people, because of outmoded assumptions, perceive as a process of ageing. In fact, it is old age itself that is ageing as the time of its onset constantly recedes. For today, on average, a 60-year-old human being enjoys the physical and psychological fitness that would have been normal in a person 10 to 15 years younger two centuries ago. The fact of the matter is, and it is good news indeed, that the average lifespan is now growing longer. In Europe, life expectancy is now rising by one whole year in every four. Meanwhile, for all age groups, at least until the age of 80, the general state of health is improving slowly and steadily. Today, it is at 80 years that one has finally to settle for being old, and even at that age happily there are exceptions.
So, if the big change occurring in our societies is not population ageing but essentially an increase in the length of life, then perhaps what we need to do is to welcome with open arms the existing and future cohort of 65-year-olds, 90 per cent of whom are likely to enjoy relatively good health until they are at least 80. Those belonging to this age group, that is, you and I, dear reader, possess all the credentials for entitlement to an active role and a full life within our society. But before that becomes possible, there are a number of obstacles and prejudices to be overcome.
The Pocket Larousse, for example, defines the ageing individual as ‘someone of diminished vitality, out of date, no longer in use’. To age is ‘to be valued no longer’ and ‘to cease to measure up to the standards of the times’. Fair enough. But, in today’s world, these definitions properly apply, if at all, only to those who are 80 or over. The problem has primarily to do with exclusion, autonomy and dependency, all of which affect the entire population in varying degrees. Now, obviously, such difficulties occur more frequently at an advanced age, but for people over 70 their incidence is only two or three times greater than for the rest of the population.
Our main purpose, then, must be to ‘restore’ to the mainstream of life, to as active and full a life as possible, that vast army of 65- to 80-year-olds who, thanks to lengthening of life, remain ready for active service. As a 65-year-old, would I be wrong in thinking that you who share my age, or will do one day, also share my concern in this matter? If you do, then, may I ask you to join me in my quest for at least another 15 years of active living?

Forget about growing old for the time being

Most biologists will tell you that the oldest age a human being can reach is 120, an age which appears to apply only to a very tiny number of exceptions but which even so defines the outer biological limits of our species. For the time being, it is the 100-year-olds whose number appears to be on the increase and it is to be hoped that this involves an extension of life rather than mere survival in an abject state.
My concern, however, is that the debate about what it means to live to the age of 120 should not overshadow what seems to me to be the number one social and human priority of our times: namely, howto provide a normal and enriching lifestyle for all those who live to the age of 80 years and beyond.
In fact, it is this age group, the 60- to 80-year-olds, who are the essential focus of the current somewhat skewed debate about population ‘ageing’. Our use of this term betrays our difficulty in adapting an outmoded idea to fit a new situation. As I have said, we are ageing later today than hitherto, but the notion of ‘ageing’ still places an intolerable burden on the shoulders of those who reach 60 years and beyond. We simply have to stop using the term to describe those in that age group, and that is by no means any easy task.
We need to bear in mind that culture and custom at times exert an inhibiting influence. Just think of how every day we talk about the sun ‘rising’ and ‘setting’. We continue to do this even five centuries after Galileo Galilei began his battle to convince the world that it is the earth that rotates around the sun rather than the sun around the earth. It was not until 1822 that the Church retracted its condemnation of Galileo for his discovery. And quite apart from the still substantial number of human beings on our planet who persist in their belief that the sun rotates around the earth, we have still not been able, after all these centuries, to modify the concepts we use, so that, in almost every language humans speak, we continue to talk about the sun ‘rising’.
The battle, then, to give to the term ‘ageing’ a meaning that more aptly reflects the new situation may be harder and may take longer than we think. It will certainly depend as much on the perception that 60-year-olds have of themselves in the future as on society’s ability in general to update its assumptions.

1 This is the first chapter of a book entitled Path for Retiring at 80. The original French version was published by Economica, October 2002.
2 Orio Giarini: Special Advisor and former Secretary-General, The Geneva Association.

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