The New Old
If you were born in 1915, congratulations! You’re one of the select few of your cohort to have celebrated their own centenary. But much has changed in the last 100 years. A child born in the UK today has a one in four chance of seeing 2116.
All over the world people are staying fitter, being active and staying healthy decades beyond the age of 65. A huge increase in life expectancy, brought about by dramatic advances in medical science and public health over the past century, means that more and more of us are living longer, fuller lives than ever before.
The ageing of society, the morphing of the population pyramid into a top-heavy column, is closely linked to economic development. The developed nations of the world have each had their own long population booms, with high mortality countered by rocketing fertility. These taper off. A declining birth rate is matched by a marked rise in life expectancy as growth stabilises and public health improves. As populations migrate from countryside to city, children cease to become a valuable source of labour and become economic liabilities. People have fewer children, grow old, retire, and the ratio of the working population to the economically inactive declines. With some variations, this is a phenomenon that has been observed across the so-called developed world — Western Europe, Japan, North America. It is a process that, barring a catastrophic global crisis, looks set to continue in the developing world.
“Today, to be old is to be new. New ways of living, new social roles and new patterns of employment are springing up as societies mature.”
Sub-Saharan Africa’s enormous population growth will not continue indefinitely, but slow in tandem with its transition from agrarianism to post-industrialism. Japan’s present is Nigeria’s future. Rapid population increases will exert huge societal pressures in some areas, but the real challenge to humanity may arise when we reach peak population and the world begins to age in unison. With a smaller proportion of the population working, how will we collectively support those too old to do so? How can health and social services be maintained to support an increasingly dependent citizenry?
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We can already see in microcosm some of the difficulties an ageing population may pose and some of the issues we may be forced to confront. Advances in medical science may have made us less vulnerable to the most lethal diseases of the past, but medics are still unable to cure many age-related afflictions of mind and body.
In the town of Yarumal, in the north of Colombia, a genetic anomaly has meant that a large proportion of the population develops early onset Alzheimer’s. Yarumal just might be a window into our future. How will societies cope with rising disease levels as people live longer? Both state and community will certainly have a major role to play in providing care and treatment to the elderly, particularly via supervised and sheltered accommodation, but many of these services already hampered by a lack of funding, staff and resources. These private and public, formal and informal structures, so crucial to ensuring even a basic standard of living, are also vulnerable to collapse. In eastern Ukraine, an area with a very high proportion of people over 65, we can see the catastrophic effect of conflict and state collapse on the old, with locals forced to go without basic supplies and essential healthcare.
With a smaller proportion of the population working, how will we collectively support those too old to do so? How can health and social services be maintained to support an increasingly dependent citizenry?
As well as placing serious strain on economic and state structures, ageing societies also undergo profound cultural shifts. In China, tensions between a tough generation of over-65s — veterans and survivors of the Cultural Revolution — and the more affluent, materialist youth sometimes break into open violence. In the UK, the socially liberal generation of the 1960s is bringing its attitudes into old age, resulting in a far more sexually active older population. This is a change that is to be celebrated, but poor awareness about reproductive health has led to a spike in sexually transmitted infections among this age group.
These are hardships and difficulties that even the most robust and affluent societies will have to overcome. But this doesn’t mean that longer life represents an impending demographic catastrophe. It is no inverse Malthusian crisis, where there are too few of working age to support the old and young. Instead, it is a transition to be understood and managed. The world’s ageing societies aren’t teetering on the brink of collapse, but moving into a new social and cultural era.
Today, to be old is to be new. New ways of living, new social roles and new patterns of employment are springing up as societies mature. In Japan, researchers are rapidly developing robots that are able to care for the elderly. As this technology evolves and becomes increasingly sophisticated, it could mean that the east Asian state will be able to free up the younger workforce and develop a sustainable way to care for its old.
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These technological advances are all part of a movement away from viewing the elderly as a burden to be cared for. People are increasingly waking up to the fact that the over-65s can be great social and economic assets. In many places the market is shifting away from the old veneration of youth culture and beginning to give equal weight to the untapped economic potential of the elderly market. This is a shift made for hard-nosed financial reasons, but in the process it is creating a society where the elderly are increasingly visible, with their needs and desires more likely to be met. Workplaces are also beginning to realise the benefits of an integrated, multi-generational workforce, and exploit the insights a better dialogue between youth and experience can bring.
States, societies and individuals do have some agency during this great demographic shift. We can either falter at the challenges brought by change or develop new, creative ways to reap the rewards of this unprecedented increase in human lifespan. Ageing needn’t be a crisis, but could instead be a process of reform. And some argue that even more radical change may soon be afoot. Many leading scientists speculate that imminent advances in medical sciences may make almost all leading causes of death effectively treatable, while others are convinced that we should be able to largely reverse the physiological process of ageing. A much smaller minority have dared to ponder a question as ancient as human thought: what if we never have to die?
To explore the subject of ageing we teamed up with The Powerful Now, an IDEO + SYPartners initiative poised to creatively redefine ageing as a path of continual growth instead of decline. Together we wanted to explore the ways in which health, money, work and communities will exist in our future, and initiate discussions to find radical new solutions.