selected countries for which there are data, life expectancy for men and women in 1840 was under 45 years. Life expectancy today is over 80 years – a figure achieved for the first time in history back in 2011.
According to the National Institutes of Health in the United States, the dramatic increase in average life expectancy during the 20th century ranks as one of as one of society’s greatest achievements.
In other words, increases in life expectancy has been a natural process – it’s been a technological achievement of nearly ongoing incremental change. In countries for which data exist, longevity has increased linearly by approximately .2 years per year since 1840.
On current projections, the average child born today will live to over 100 years of age.
Some predict that the theoretical limit to life will continue to increase as well. This means that not only are we living longer “on average” we are living longer in absolute terms with human lifespans increasing perhaps to 150 years in the foreseable future.
Today, our “stay of execution” has been better mastery of food production, preservation and distribution, advances in medical science, high levels of sanitation and significant changes in labour. We understand that immortality is less important than a finite lifespan in which life is lived well. We accept that part of life is death.
We are understandably justified, however, in our pursuit of longer life.
What we are more universally coming to understand is that quality of life is the critical variable from which we can enjoy the good life. That it correlates with longevity is a bonus. But most of us want to live to our dying day with gusto, with purpose.
There is some evidence that in older age we tend to stop adopting and adapting and get stuck on “the old ways.”
A century ago, life expectancy matched the expected life span and retirement was a relatively new idea and enjoyed by few. At the same time, changes in the way work and jobs operated were small and few. We worked ourselves to death and did the same thing day in and day out from youth to old age and keeping up with changes on the job wasn’t our biggest challenge.
How times change!
Today we expect to retire at 65, live for many years after retirement and enjoy the spoils of our labour. Of course, some want to keep working.
According to research by Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Ken Dychtwald, a leading expert on ageing, only 29% of Americans say they want never to work again after retirement. Many want to keep working.
But many fear they can’t. It seems that staying in work until age 65 is more than just a challenge, it’s a near impossibility.
Businesses and jobs seem to be constantly changing and ageism appears to create barriers to older adults staying in work (CITE). A major cause of this trend is technological change and the view that older adults aren’t keeping up.
“A billion shades of grey” was a headline that appeared in The Economist in 2014. The article revealed that the proportion of the world’s population aged 65 and older will almost double from 600 million to 1.1 billion over the next 20 years.
In other words, because we are living longer and longer, the ranks of those over the age 65 are swelling.
Think about it: within about 100 years, what used to be life expectancy, age 65, will become a point at which nearly a billion people will have another 25 years to live.
The obvious question from articles like this is what will those many years be like? We have already seen significant changes in the world’s economy that tells us exactly what those years have been like and most of us don’t like what we see. We see institutionalised aged care in which our personal needs are ignored and a one-size-fits-all system keeps us alive, but not exactly living it up. We see skyrocketing health care costs and big pharmaceutical companies that have strained both private and national health care systems and insurers. We have seen whole new product classes like scooters and motorised chairs and beds that make it easier for old bodies to function more or less independently.
It’s not exactly the fountain of youth is it? However, the myth of the fountain of youth has influenced the choices and motivations we have today, even if our sense of it has changed considerably since the Spanish conquistador, Juan Ponce de Leon, explored the New World from his adopted home of Puerto Rico. In Ponce de Leon’s search for the fountain of youth in Florida at the start of the 16th Century, he was looking for a supply of water with rejuvenating properties so great that it might maintain perpetual youth.
While the statistics show technology has given us longer lives, the statistics also show that those lives are falling short of perpetual youth and are often neglected in the belief that old is obsolete and decrepitude is inevitable.
At a recent year 12 school event a parent of a graduating student who was also suddenly an adult, said to us, “I’m old.” We replied, no, you are older. One is about time, the other about attitude.
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Haber, D. 2006. Life Review: Implementation, theory, and future direction. International Journal of Aging & Human Development, 63, 153-171
Sheldon,K., & Kasser, T. (2001). Getting older, getting better? Development Psychology, 37, 491-501
Thomas, W. (2004). What are old people for? How elders will save the world. Acton, MA:VanderWyk & Burnham
Cohen, G. (2005), The mature mind. New York: Basic Books.