Our ageing society signifies an improvement in living and working conditions. Our guest, Suzanne Hall, asks if we’re right to be ‘downbeat’ about later life.
This is a guest post by Suzanne Hall. All views expressed are Suzanne’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?.
Our ageing society is a medical triumph, and signifies just how much living and working conditions have improved.
However, as research for the recent Ipsos MORI Perennials report shows, growing older is typically portrayed as a ‘narrative of decline’, and old age is misunderstood.
We don’t even have consensus on when old age starts; if you ask a 16 to 24-year-old they will tell you that old age begins at what must feel like the ancient age of 61, whereas a 55 to 64-year-old will say it doesn’t start till 72. In Spain, you’re old at 74 whereas in Saudi Arabia old age comes almost twenty years earlier at 55.
Regardless of when we think old age starts though, globally we share remarkably similar associations about what it means to be old.
We identify old people as wise (35%), both respected (25%) and respectful (23%), and kind (21%). But we also label them as frail (32%), lonely (30%) and unfairly treated (23%).
Taken together, this creates what American social psychologist Amy Cuddy calls a ‘doddering but dear’ archetype which shapes how we think about our later life. Around the world, only a third (33%) of us are looking forward to our old age.
A negative image of later life?
That we have this negative image of later life matters. On average, people who are negative about old age die 7.5 years earlier.
It also means we collectively bury our head in the sand about what we need to do to prepare. We vastly underestimate how much we need to save in a private pension; in order to get an income of £25,000 per annum in retirement you need to save £315,000 but the average guess was just £124,000.
Our perceptions of later life mean that older people are under-served – by policies that don’t meet their changing needs, by employers who cast them aside, and by companies which don’t design things they want or need.
But are we right to be so downbeat about later life? As we find in so much of our work, our perceptions are out of kilter with the reality.
People in later life are some of the happiest in society, and most Western studies show happiness levels increasing from our sixties until at least our mid-seventies.
Older people are also more digitally connected than ever. While there is still a gap to be closed, it is narrowing; ONS data shows that recent internet use in the 65 to 74 age group increased from 52% in 2011 to 80% in 2018. Older people have huge economic power – in the UK the over 50s account for nearly half of all consumer spending – and they represent a mighty political force.
Yet we rarely see this side of later life portrayed. There are some notable exceptions in advertising – Helen Mirren for L’Oréal, Joan Didion for Celine and Isabella Rossellini for Lancôme, rehired in her sixties two decades after being sacked for being too old.
But, this handful of examples isn’t enough to change perceptions and, in Great Britain fewer than one in five (18%) think that advertising, TV and the media makes old age seem exciting and full of potential.
There is clearly a need for radical change, and government, business and advertisers all need to wake up to both the challenges and opportunities presented by the ageing society. But there are simple steps we can all take to ensure we have a more fulfilling later life.
Firstly, to dispel the myths we have about old age, we need to get to know old people. Yet despite being advantageous for everyone concerned, inter-generational friendships appear to be uncommon.
It is not just socially where older people’s wisdom and experience could be beneficial – 94% of employers believe that older people could be the key to bridging the skills gap.
And, we can all start making changes now, which will improve our lives later down the line. It’s never too late to make a positive difference – whether that be eating healthily, exercising more, building strong social connections or boosting retirement savings.
Research has found that even people in their 90s could improve their overall wellbeing by increasing the level of light activity they participate in regularly. Our future is very much in our hands.
This was a guest post by Suzanne Hall. All views expressed were Suzanne’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?.
What are your views on the perceptions of later life? Do you agree there’s a negative perception? Let us and Suzanne know what steps could be taken to help change views in the comments below.