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Fifty is not the start of old age - keep up!

February 12, 2015

Patricia Edgar

We are experiencing a longevity revolution with lifetimes stretching to 100. You?re not old till you hit 85 now.

US President Barack Obama's health adviser Ezekiel Emanuel has a solution to the "longevity problem". A bioethicist, now a fit 57-year-old, he hopes to be dead at 75 when in his view he will have lived "a complete life".

Emanuel won't medicate, take even a flu injection or an antibiotic, he says.  But at the end of his inflammatory essay in Atlantic Monthly last October, he cops out, reserving the right to change his mind. So why publish if not to influence policy? He claims his motive is to cause others to think about it. 

Given our increased life expectancy the term "old" should perhaps mean someone over 85, not 65 and certainly not 55.  

I have done that and my bet is Emanuel will change his mind when he discovers 75 is not as old as he now thinks it is and there is still much life to be lived well, in a humane society that respects every individual at every age. 

The way economists, the media and governments talk about "the problem of old age" encourages misleading perceptions of ageing.  

American National Institute of Ageing studies show that negative stereotypes about ageing, images of the elderly as "senile", "frail", or confused, can become debilitating, self-fulfilling prophecies. Seeing or hearing gloomy examples  about what it is like to be old can make people walk more slowly, hear and remember less well, and even affect their cardiovascular system, affecting health and longevity. 

That result is unsurprising. Tell anyone, at any age, they are a burden, with nothing to contribute and they will begin to believe and act accordingly. It's like pointing the bone.

Despite the resoundingly negative commentaries from economists, resilient older Australians are proving them wrong, many living to be 100  (if not 150) without being a burden. 

Over the last 35 years the so-called dependency burden has actually fallen. Older Australians have increased their contribution to the labour force. As well baby boomers do not form a unique bulge in the population pyramid. The group  following the baby boomers is  larger so will increase numbers in the paid labour force.

So how do we correct the myths and develop responsible and productive policies? We should start with a new definition of ageing. 

When is someone old?  Life expectancy above 30 is a very modern phenomenon driven by public health measures and falling infant mortality. Life expectancy at birth only reached 35 in Sweden shortly before 1700; in Italy around 1880; and in Russia around 1910. In Australia today, life expectancy for men who are 65 is 85 and for women it is 89. The aged represent the fastest growing demographic in society.

Yet we are still bogged down in the perception that 50 is the beginning of old age. South Australia's Ageing Plan has been based on interviews with Australians over 50. At that age we are entering "the second half of life", not heading for the scrap heap. So by treating this stage as a period of obsolescence we are creating a non-existent problem and undermining a resource which could have significant benefit for society. 

In the '50s  Americans identified adolescents or teenagers as a group distinct from children, with special needs. It made sense developmentally to split the demographic of children into two distinct groups as childhood was prolonged with schooling extended; children  living with parents longer, entering the workforce later, marrying later and their life expectancy increasing proportionally. 

It's time to recognise middle age, like childhood, is now lived in two stages. We have evolved to a point where the first stage involves work and the second, activity before old age. We don't stop work, then die as we did in the early 1900s. Retirement now is from the paid labour force but not from life. It is a time of maturity, when we have been broadened by experience. It is a time for generativity, when we can give back and find satisfaction in a range of activities.

This is already happening through volunteering, caring, intergenerational contributions such as childcare and mentoring but these contributions are not recognised and valued. They don't count in the GDP, but no strong community can exist without them and this is the way of life now.

The inter-generational warfare promoted in some sections of the media is another counter-productive myth. It is a rare family where the interests of the young are not the over-riding concern of parents and grandparents. Income flows from the old to the young more than the other way around, a fact that is overlooked.

It isn't difficult to see that two clear age groups are being confused and the attributes of the very old are being conferred way too early.  Given our increased life expectancy the term "old" should perhaps mean someone over 85, not 65 and certainly not 55. 

Social, medical and cultural policy needs to catch up with this dramatic change in our life cycle. 

We have got to stop talking about retirement and "having a well-deserved rest". Working until the age of 70, if the jobs are there and discrimination in the workforce ceases, makes sense.  The reason is not simply to ease an economic burden, but to prevent decline where, for too many, retirement leads to cognitive, emotional and physical deterioration.

People in a late-stage career or living an active life after 55 have much to give. We need to think about Life Part 2, about redesigning our long life journey. A growing body of research suggests that health and satisfaction in the second half of life, the opportunity to re-invent ourselves, are critically tied to education and engagement, but we are used to thinking that education is for the young. Instead we need to think about education as a life-long process. 

The claim that 1.8 million Australians will have to rely on public expenditure to live is ill informed. The choice is ours to make. We are experiencing a longevity revolution which, with will and imagination, has exciting potential for the wellbeing of all.

Patricia Edgar is an ambassador for The National Ageing Research Institute and author of In Praise of Ageing.