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 the occasion to discuss even with your neighbour: the issue of population ageing in industrialised countries, and in the long run in all other countries as well, which is one of the major problems of our time.
…Not true, I am afraid. You do not 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 every four years. 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 finally settles for being old, and even at that age there are exceptions.
If the phenomenon that characterises 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The Pocket Larousse, for example, defines the ageing individual as ‘someone of diminished vitality, out of date, no longer in use’.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 means ‘being no longer valued’ and ‘ceasing to measure up to the needs of the times’. Maybe that I show it is.
But, in today’s world, these definitions properly apply only to those who are over 80 for whom the problem has to do primarily 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 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, all those 65 to 80 year olds who, thanks to the lengthening of life, remain ready for active service. I do not think I am much mistaken in thinking that you, who like me are over 60 or 65, or will be so one day, broadly speaking share my concern in this matter. So, let us together begin our quest for at least another 15 years of active living.
1. Growing Old Occurs Much Later
Most biologists will tell you that the oldest age a human being can reach is 120. Such longevity appears to apply to only a very tiny number of exceptions but this only defines the outer biological limits of our species. For the time being, it is the 100 year olds whose numbers appear 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, how to provide a normal and enriching lifestyle for all those who live to the age of 80 years and beyond.
The somewhat distorted debate about population ‘ageing’, a term that betrays our difficulty in adapting an outmoded perception to a new situation involves the age group between 60 and 80 years of age. It has to be repeated that we are ageing much later today than hitherto, but the notion of ‘ageing’ still places an intolerable burden on the shoulders of those who have passed over the threshold of 60 years. We simply have to stop using the term to describe those in that age group, and that is not easy.
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’ five centuries after Galileo Galilei battled 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 who persist in their belief that the sun rotates around the earth, we have not been able, after all these centuries, to modify the language 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.
2. A Life Expectancy of 20 Years at 60
There is one point we need to clarify straightaway. There has clearly been a tremendous improvement in the life expectancy of the population particularly as a result of an enormous fall in infant mortality. Some people use this point to assert that this is the main reason for current demographic developments.
There is, however, another statistic we need to consider if we are to fully appreciate the significance of this growth in length of life. This has to do with life expectancy at 60 and 65 years, which runs between 15 and 20 years in industrialised countries, with most of the other countries beginning to catch up. Countries which are very ‘young’ today, with the bulk of their population less than 20 years old, will be facing enormous ‘ageing’ problems in 20 to 30 years’ time. China, for instance, has already started to think about the issue. So what the ‘older’ countries manage to achieve today in terms of solutions will serve as a valuable benchmark for all those other countries tomorrow. In this respect, we have a head start.
Nor should one forget that, regarding life expectancy at 60 and 65 years, there is a big difference between men and women in many countries, some living four or five years longer − a point that needs careful attention.
Finally, our statistics need to be increasingly refined to give a clearer picture of the effective levels of autonomy, health, education (especially lifelong training) and informal activities of 60 to 65 year olds.
All this involves a range of economic and financial measures and initiatives affecting the structure of training and the nature of the occupational and leisure activities we pursue.