Anyone in their 50s or 60s today has a very good chance of living into their 90s. If you play your cards right and have luck on your side, many of those years could be healthy and productive, not the miserable decline that many of us fear.
The fact is that in the 21st century, our chronological age is becoming decoupled from our biological capabilities.
The question this begs is: to what use are we going to put those extra years?
In football, ‘extra time’ is the period when there is everything still to play for. That will be true for many of us.
Yuichiro Miura climbed Everest aged 80. The fact is that in the 21st century, our chronological age is becoming decoupled from our biological capabilities. The question this begs is: to what use are we going to put those extra years?
The Office for National Statistics estimates that one in three babies born in Britain today will live to 100. Some scientists think people could even live to 150. Already droves of people are ‘un-retiring’ and going back to work. Advances in biology and neuroscience will help us stay younger longer.
This should be a dream scenario. Instead, there are widespread fears that we are sitting on a ‘demographic time bomb’, with droves of elderly people about to bankrupt us all. Economies could slump and younger generations could face crippling taxes.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s just that our thoughts and our institutions have not yet caught up with this fundamental shift in the way our lives pan out.
The very shape of our society is changing before our eyes. Next year, for the first time in history, there will be more people on Earth over 65 than under five.
David Attenborough is making hit TV series in his 90s. We have to wean ourselves off this idea of retirement as the ‘Golden Years’ of leisure and regain our idealism about what older people can offer
More grandparents than grandchildren. How are we going to deal with this crucial demographic switch?
I started contemplating this after my father died in 2016. He had dreaded getting ‘old’ — so much so that it whittled down his life much too early.
I remember his gloom on his 50th birthday, his sense that everything was ‘over’. From then on, he started to think of himself in a different way. He’d say, ‘Oh, I’m too old for that’, and sigh.
When he and my mother divorced, he refused to get a cat, although he adored them, on the basis that it might outlive him and be left homeless. He ended up living, in largely excellent health, to 86. And he lived all that time without cats, who could have kept him company.
As for my mother, she lied about her age until she was 72, because she was terrified she would lose her job as a secretary and default on the mortgage. This created a huge burden of deception. She never dared join the company pension scheme for fear of being found out.
Such fatalism is typical of the way too many older people view themselves — and, just as importantly, how society views them. We are still in thrall to the official definition of ‘working age’ as 15 to 64.
Yet David Hockney became the world’s foremost iPad painter at 76; Tina Turner made the cover of Vogue at 73; Yuichiro Miura climbed Everest aged 80. Warren Buffett is still investing in his 80s and David Attenborough is making hit TV series in his 90s.
Behind them stride loads of ordinary people who see Extra Time as an opportunity, who are starting businesses and are highly productive.
Last winter, a doctor friend of mine was in charge of the flu vaccinations for the over-65s at his local clinic. A crowd of grey-haired strangers walked in. They had never come to see him before because there was nothing wrong with them.
At BMW’s largest car-making plant in Germany, where management were keen not to lose skilled older workers just because they weren’t as strong or flexible as they used to be, a specially adapted production line was set up [File photo]
These people are part of a growing group who don’t see themselves as old, don’t act old and won’t buy products marketed at the old either. In England, the proportion of over-65s with any kind of impairment has been falling for two decades.
That doesn’t mean that older people don’t forget their keys or lose concentration. But it does mean that some of our fears are overdone.
In surveys, most people say they think that everyone will get dementia if they live long enough. It isn’t true. Only one in six people over 80 have dementia. Many never get it. In the UK, the risk of getting dementia is a fifth lower than it was 20 years ago.
Most of us also underestimate how long we have left to live. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, people in their 50s and 60s underestimate their chances of survival to age 75 by 20 per cent.
But if we fear death is around the corner when it isn’t, there is a risk we may start to feel ‘old’ too soon. We won’t save enough, plan our career far enough ahead, or feel positive enough about our future.
We need to fundamentally rethink our notions of ageing because living longer is not a blessing unless it is living better for longer.
The Japanese, whose society is now the oldest on the planet, caught up with the reality of Extra Time long ago.
Those who are frail and in need of support they call ‘Old-Old’. The group who are still hale and hearty and rushing around after grandchildren they call the ‘Young-Old’, living life to the full in what amounts to an extended middle age.
And the two groups need to be treated very differently.
We must stop lumping everyone from 60 to 100 together, and accept that being vibrant and capable in your 70s is perfectly normal.
Governments must raise retirement ages in line with life expectancy, as part of signalling that the average lifespan has changed.
And we all need to challenge our own attitudes. Prejudices we build up against the ‘old’ will only hurt us when we reach that stage ourselves. What if, instead of defining people by how many birthdays they’ve enjoyed, we define them by how many years they likely have left?
If we defined old age as having 15 or fewer years left to live, we wouldn’t call many baby-boomers ‘old’ until they hit 74.
Language matters in all this. The media should take a look at how they portray ‘pensioners’, and question whether they are falling for a narrow narrative about youth.
Broadcasters, galleries and museums spend hours worrying about how to reach more youthful audiences — despite the fact that older people have more time and money, and are growing in number.
‘Everybody ghettoises the old,’ says broadcaster Joan Bakewell, at 86 a poster girl for ageing well.
When, in 2017, she presented the TV programme Life At 100, she had to keep challenging the production team for referring to older viewers as ‘they’. ‘There shouldn’t be that distinction,’ she says. ‘We are all in this together.’
But if we are not to squander the benefits of our Young-Old years, we must look after our health. Extra Time will be a Pyrrhic victory if we are doomed to spend years too weak to get out of a chair.
Luckily, many of the keys to living longer better are within our control. We should be running exercise programmes for people of all ages to close the ‘fitness gap’. We should tackle junk food as aggressively as we once tackled cigarettes.
But most of all, we need to be far more positive about ourselves.
Some scientists think people could even live to 150. Already droves of people are ‘un-retiring’ and going back to work. Advances in biology and neuroscience will help us stay younger longer [File photo]
Decades of medical research show that we don’t have to succumb to deterioration from the age of 50, our arteries and joints gradually stiffening as we puff our way into chronic disease.
We can fight to stay relatively youthful right up until 90, and reduce our risk of dementia, by eating better and becoming far, far more active. A raft of studies have identified exercise as the single most powerful predictor of whether we will age well.
You won’t banish wrinkles, but by joining a cycling club you will have more energy, exude more vitality, seem younger and, in biological terms, be younger if you lead a more active life.
If we are to enjoy our Extra Time, we also need to extend our mental lifespans to match our physical ones. Our brains will atrophy through lack of nourishment if we are stuck in a rut, are housebound or in hospital.
We also need to take depression far more seriously. Many people assume that depression is just part of ageing, so don’t even seek help. Bereavement is miserable; loneliness, too. But depression is not a normal part of ageing.
The yawning gap between stopping work at 60 and living to 85 can also be tragic. Executives who suddenly find themselves at home, bereft of routine and camaraderie, can feel as if they’ve hit a full stop.
The people I’ve met over 60 who seem to be getting the most from their Extra Time are still working. One in four Americans and Brits now ‘un-retire’ after having officially left work.
At BMW’s largest car-making plant in Germany, where management were keen not to lose skilled older workers just because they weren’t as strong or flexible as they used to be, a specially adapted production line was set up.
Those who are frail and in need of support they call ‘Old-Old’. The group who are still hale and hearty and rushing around after grandchildren they call the ‘Young-Old’, living life to the full in what amounts to an extended middle age [File photo]
Revolving barbershop chairs were put in to ease strain and magnifying lenses to counteract failing eyesight, while daily stretching exercises were introduced on the shop floor.
At first it was derided as ‘the pensioners’ line’ — until it emerged that productivity went up by 7 per cent, absenteeism dropped and assembly defects fell to zero.
If we are to make full use of Extra Time, we are going to have to rewrite the career timetable. It’s a pretty universal assumption that we’ll work flat out in our 30s, ‘make it’ in our 40s and peak in our 50s.
This is crazy. It squashes the time of greatest intensity in our careers into the period marked ‘child-rearing’, when sleepless nights and school runs, followed by teenage angst, clash with the most pressured years of our working lives.
Many ambitious people have their feet clamped so hard on the career accelerator that they have too little time for their families in their 30s, only to plateau in their 50s and get spat out at 60 when they’ve still got plenty of energy and their children don’t need them anymore.
This system leaves almost everyone in a state of regret about what they didn’t do. And it’s woefully inefficient. The traditional career timetable dramatically shrinks the talent pool, by excluding anyone who doesn’t stick to it. And it makes no sense when people are living longer and in better health.
We are still in thrall to the official definition of ‘working age’ as 15 to 64. Yet David Hockney became the world’s foremost iPad painter at 76
What does make sense is giving people a mid-career MOT in their 50s, to help them take stock of where they are in their lives. We get careers advice at 16, when we haven’t got a clue, so why not advise people who have already experienced the workplace and know what they’re good at?
It has been said that — with life expectancy rising and birth rates falling — our ageing population is our only increasing natural resource. So let’s use it.
Pressures on public services are rising as populations age. There are fewer younger people available to be teachers, nurses and playground supervisors yet we are awash with older people with time and experience.
Why not put the two together? Dedicated volunteers can make a real, measurable difference to the NHS — driving patients to appointments, sitting with them through the consultation and taking notes, then dropping them home, maybe picking up some milk on the way.
This is comforting, practical help for people who live alone, and a cost-saver for hospitals whose annual bill for transporting patients home runs into the millions of pounds.
It is also a move back towards the original vision of the social reformer William Beveridge. His blueprint for the post-war UK welfare state was of a shared project between the state and citizens, ‘leaving room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family’.
We have to wean ourselves off this idea of retirement as the ‘Golden Years’ of leisure and regain our idealism about what older people can offer.
Paul Irving, chairman of the U.S. Milken Institute Center for the Future of Ageing, likens life to running a marathon. ‘At a certain point you hit the wall. Then you go through it and, towards the end, you get the “kick”.
‘The fewer years we have left, the closer the end, the value of our time goes up. We should see this as an opportunity to speed up. We have to make people believe that this can be the most valuable time of their life.’
He is right. In Extra Time, there is everything to play for.
Extra Time by Camilla Cavendish is published by HarperCollins, price £20. ©Camilla Cavendish 2019.
To order a copy for £16 (20 per cent discount) visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. p&p is free on orders over £15. Spend £30 on books and get FREE premium delivery. Offer valid until May 4, 2019.