Rising life expectancy and why we need to rethink the meaning of old age

The autumn years are getting later. Shutterstock

The life expectancy of human beings will soon exceed 90 years for the first time, scientists have predicted. An international study suggests that people will be living far longer in 2030, with the gap between men and women starting to close.

The decline in mortality and associated improvement in survival is one of the great success stories of the 20th century. Given the mortality rates prevailing at the start of the last century, a baby boy born in the UK in 1901 could on average expect to live to the age of 45. By the beginning of this century, average male life expectancy had risen to 75 years.

This is an increase of 30 years in life expectancy over a century. Broken down further, it sounds even more extraordinary: an increase of three years in every ten, or three-and-a-half months every year. That’s over seven hours every day across the century.

These improvements in life expectancy reflect advances in medicine and public health, as well as rising standards of living, better education, improved nutrition and changes in lifestyles. They also naturally lead to discussions around the meaning of age itself.

There is no commonly accepted definition of when old age begins. For some, the cut-off for when old age starts is 65 years, but this is somewhat arbitrary and is often simply associated with the age one can begin to receive a pension and other benefits.

One alternative approach is to look at the levels of mortality associated with different ages. If one thinks of the onset of old age as being when there is a 1% chance of dying, and the onset of “older old age” as being when there is a 10% chance of dying, it is clear that old age is being increasingly postponed.

Levels of mortality that used to prevail in people’s early 50s are now prevailing in the their early 60s. For men, the age where there is a 1% chance of dying has risen from 52 in 1955 to 63 in 2015. For women, it has shifted from 58 to 68. Similarly, the onset of “older old age” has moved from 77 for men in 1955 to 86 in 2015, and from 80 to 88 among women. So the good news is that 60 really is the new 50.

The mortality assumptions included in the population projections of the Office for National Statistics suggest that the onset of old age for men born in 1955 will be around age 65 and for women this will be at age 70. However “older old age” will not occur until age 91 for this group of men, and at 92 for women.

On message. Alex Rotas

Given that some of those born in 1955 are now starting to retire, this suggests that they will be able to look forward to an active and healthy retirement. If we believe the projections, a boy born in 2015 might expect to reach 75 before the onset of later life and will reach 98 before older old age sets in, while a girl born in 2015 who has survived her first year of life is likely to reach 100 before she faces a year where the mortality risk reaches 10%.

Time to make plans

What do these increases in survival mean? People currently in mid-life commonly underestimate their likely life expectancy and thus the time period over which they will need to stretch their pension saving.

However, for those young women and men entering their 20s, if they knew with a high degree of certainty that they were likely to survive well into their 90s in good health and might even survive into their 100s, how many might choose to re-prioritise their life course.

At present, the period of leaving education, establishing a career and having a family all overlaps during people’s 20s and 30s, resulting in the “rush hour of life”. Perhaps it is time to rethink and to slow down.

This (longer lasting) sporting life. Alex Rotas

What society needs is a system that will allow people to redistribute time and resources across the life course, facilitating investment in family life at one stage and work at another. Of course, there are uncertainties around the latest projections but if the past is a guide to the future, the time to start thinking is now.

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