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Experts from nearly a hundred countries met in Vienna in 1982 to celebrate the First World Assembly on Ageing, where they arbitrarily declared that old age starts at 60. They expressed their “worry” about the way populations are ageing in developed countries and how young people are supposed to shoulder old people’s pensions. Life expectancy has increased ever since – with the exception of several African nations heavily affected by the HIV epidemic. Eleven million people have fulfilled the dream of living for an entire century. The II World Assembly on Ageing took place two decades later and there experts refused to set a fixed age as the start of old age. Nowadays, being old is not a matter of age, but social needs, personal expectations and integration with the young. Welcome to the world where you decide how old you actually are.
Everyone knows about it: the world is growing old. According to the UN, the number of people considered old will increase fourfold – from 600 million to almost two billion people – during the next fifty years. Nowadays, almost one in ten people is aged 60 or more. By 2050, one in five people will be old, and a third of the total world population is expected to be 60 or older by 2150. The cause is simple: low birth rates combined with the rise in life expectancy. Globally, young and old people will be the same in number, but in developed countries, the number of old people will amply surpass the number of children by 2050. The world has already grown older and as the phenomenon consolidates, everyone is asking themselves what is old and what is not. Another important question is the minimum age required to be considered an old person. Once again, the answer lies within each person.
In 1982, the First World Assembly set the beginning of old age at 60 years. In 2002, the second Assembly declined to mark a precise age. In 1995, the World Health Organisation (WHO) changed its official definition of “health”, claiming it to be “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This means it does not rely solely on the occurrence of illness, but the chosen attitude towards the problem. It was a silent revolution that led to change. “In the past, old age was defined as the life phase from 65 years to death, being a weakening process. That meaning is currently changing,” explains Sergio Pasqualini, director of Halitus, a medical institute from Buenos Aires devoted to old people. He questions: “When does a person become old? It is impossible to define such a thing. Ageing is an unavoidable process, but being old is an individual and subjective decision, it depends on the person.”
Most people think that “no one wants to look old.” How much truth is there in this belief? According to many polls, this statement is untrue. A study conducted by Kent University in 2010 and published in May by the British government confirms that attitudes to age in Britain differ greatly from their European neighbours’ and the rest of the world. For the British, youth ends at 59 – an idea that Pensions Minister Steve Webb is trying to change in order to promote a work culture beyond that age. “The idea that 59 is old belongs in the past. We need to challenge our perceptions of what ‘old age’ actually means,” he said. “It is no longer the time where people are sitting back and enjoying the ‘twilight’ of their lives, instead it is often a time for new choices and new opportunities.”
The study, entitled “Predictors of Attitudes to Age Across Europe”, shows that British people are described as “old” far earlier than their European counterparts: the Greeks regard old age as starting at 68; while in Denmark, the figure was 64 and in France 63. Furthermore, people in Britain stop being described as “young” at 35, Germans when they reach 43, and Cypriots at 51. In short, the study reveals that old age is a personal, subjective question and not imposed by age. This is a crucial matter for Europe, while its governments are debating whether to raise the minimum age for entitlement to a state pension. Another study, the European Social Survey (ESS), covering over 30 nations, also shows similar figures.
Mean estimated age
Source: European Social Survey (ESS) 2008
Marketing experts from old age-oriented companies mention two ways of tackling the subject: The first emphasis claims that people get isolated and lose their interest in the world around them as they age. The second outlook – the “modern” one – is called “activity or attachment theory,” which assures that the oldest must keep themselves active for as long as possible and that they must seek out substitute activities to replace the ones they can no longer carry out. For companies such as Siemens, Philips and General Electric (as well as most medical laboratories), this theory has become the norm for the world’s population. “Even in Europe, with a Welfare State that promised a good future for ageing citizens, the overwhelming majority of them want to keep enjoying life and not to lock themselves up waiting for death to come,” said a German executive from Siemens’ Healthcare Diagnostics division last year to Euromonitor International.
It is not a matter of simply “wanting” to retire, but also of “being able” to do so. In the USA, as baby boomers started to retire recently, many Americans must keep working – often part-time – in order to maintain their current socioeconomic status by the time they reach 65. At least five surveys conducted between 2010 and 2011 claim that a variable percentage (between 71% and 83%) of baby boomers intends to keep working after retirement. While another baby boomer turns 60 every eight seconds in the USA, (whether because they “want” to or “must” retire) the “proactive” attitude this generation is taking regarding their retirement will change the way old age is now conceived.
Manuel Alfaro Faus, head of the Marketing Department of the ESADE Business School, from Barcelona, Spain, says that the current longevity of the population is a trend that will impose “great changes,” for “it is not the same to be a person in his fifties with 30 years left to live than having 15 or even 20 years more than that.” As he stated in June, it is a social phenomenon that “forces us to rethink what we teach, research and publish,” and that “it is necessary to increase the people’s savings so they can afford their lives during retirement.” According to an article from the US News magazine entitled “10 Ways Baby Boomers Will Reinvent Retirement”, five of these are related to their financial situation: “Lower Social Security benefits”, “Retiring with debt”, “No pension” (from their employers) and “Managing investments”. This is cause for concern, but also an opportunity for financial institutions, insurance companies and many other firms.