We've had the third way, now for the third age
In Britain, old age can be synonymous with misery. A global survey of attitudes towards ageing populations shows happy, longer lives are possible, says Jonathan Clifton.
There are now more pensioners in Britain than there are children under the age of 16. One in four babies born today will live to be a hundred. What used to be an abstract issue for the future has become a reality: Britain has grown old.
These changes are a cause for celebration – the result of gains in healthcare and economic development. But they bring with them challenges as well. The way we organize society has not kept pace with the reality of people’s lives. The retirement age is 60 or 65 but many are able and willing to work longer. Education is designed for children but adults need and want to learn as well. We can expect twenty years of retirement but only half of us save adequate amounts to fund this. Cities and homes are designed for the able bodied but many will become less able as they grow older. Perhaps the greatest challenge is that despite living longer and healthier lives, we are not getting happier. Up to a quarter of older people are affected by low levels of depression that are easily preventable.
This failure to adapt to our ageing population is ultimately the result of public attitudes and government policies that have seen ageing as an inevitable process of decline and dependence that we can do little about. The stigmas attached to ageing – that it is a time of loneliness, disengagement from society, and mental decline – have been treated as natural processes. We have designed our institutions and communities according to an image of life after 65 that is both hopelessly out of date and that assumes the ageing agenda is little more than pensions and care homes.
A glance around the world challenges the idea that old age is somehow an inevitable period of decline and unhappiness. Growing old is not the same everywhere you go. In Japan, for example, over 65s are the generation most satisfied with their lives. Across Europe, rates of depression among older people vary – in Amsterdam they are half what they are in Munich. A fifth of Americans in their seventies are still working, compared to 1% in France.
There are two things to learn from these observations. First, ageing is clearly a malleable process that we can shape. Second, we need to take the wellbeing of older people seriously.
An approach based on these two assumptions opens a range of options for doing things differently. We can rethink how we work and retire - in some Japanese firms those who reach the retirement age can apply to move back ‘down the corporate ladder’ to less demanding roles, and in Sweden and Norway there is a right to combine work and retirement, meaning people keep working longer and phase out of the work place, preventing the sudden cut from work that leaves many feeling ‘left out’. In New Zealand the largest immigrant settlement agency relies on older volunteers to teach English to new arrivals – nearly half of their staff are over 55 – ensuring their skills are harnessed and they continue to make a valued contribution.
New approaches to lifelong learning have also been developed. In the USA, for example, SeniorNet has pioneered peer group tutoring to teach IT and internet skills to older people - it is now backed by computing giants such as Microsoft and Google, teaches 20,000 students in its centers each year and has over 100,000 visitors to its website every month.
Ensuring older people have access to information about what services are available for them is crucial. Finland has pioneered preventive home visits for the elderly – meaning trained professionals go to people’s homes to check they are properly adapted and provide advice and information. In Florida a dedicated phoneline is available for pensioners that can link callers directly with required services, providing a single point of contact for all.
These are just a few examples that demonstrate building a genuine ‘society for all ages’ will challenge governments, companies, third sector organizations and individuals in all walks of life. The government’s new ageing strategy is a step in the right direction, but the challenge is one of wholesale social development and not just policies and services. Living longer lives is a great achievement, but living longer and happier lives will take more work. Evidence from overseas suggests this is an achievable goal.
Jonathan Clifton is a Researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research