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There is no such thing as old age

Flexible working.
Flexible working.
Image: Reuters/Keith Bedford
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The term “old age” evokes images that are variously heartwarming—a grandmother knitting by a fire, say—and pity-inducing: A man with a walking stick trying to cross a busy road. Both are hopelessly outdated, argued a panel that convened in London this week to discuss how radically we need to rethink the later part of life, in a world where people routinely live to 100 and are working into their 70s, 80s, or 90s.

Longer life is becoming part of the fabric of society across the world. One consequence is a rise in the number of very old people in need of support from families, institutions, and the state. Health problems for this age group can be compounded by social problems, like loneliness. But the prevailing theme at The Longevity Forum, a conference hosted by the Wellcome Collection, was not about combating isolation, or filling the later part of life with leisure and relaxation. Rather, panelists and speakers argued that if a 60-year-old potentially has 40 years of life left to live, then consigning them to a bracket traditionally reserved for people with infirmities and in need of care makes no sense at all.

It’s a mistake to keep telling ourselves a story about how “old age” equals infirmity, suggested Andrew Scott, co-author of The 100 Year Life. “What occurs to me time and time again is that we need to try and get a new narrative about the life course,” Scott said. “Trying to get people talking about it at an early stage, trying to think about the whole life course, I think is the key thing.” 

The 100 Year Life Panel—as it was called—talked mostly about the vast possibilities associated with a group of older people who have built up skills through a long working life and achieved plenty in their careers, but who have energy for new challenges.

Another way to think about this is as a “redistribution of time,” said Lynda Gratton, who co-authored The 100-Year Life with Scott and is a professor of management at the London Business School. Potentially this could mean taking more time out earlier in one’s career, and moving workplace productivity later in the overall journey. Working parents, several speakers agreed, were some of the most pressed and busy members of society. If you’re living to 100 and having only one or two children, “why wouldn’t you want to spend time with them?” Gratton asked.

Adair Turner, a member of the House of Lords and chair of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, said that it was time to open our mind to “the need for different stages in life, the need for breaks early in life,” and “to get away from idea that there’s a thing called full-time work from 20 to 65, or 68…and that’s it.”

Gratton warned, however, that employers are going to have to get with the program. Ageism is a real problem, she said, making it especially hard for people over 50 to re-enter the workforce after a break. And she put a number on when it starts: 45 years old.