We are all getting older. Over the next 30 years, the worldwide population of people aged 65 and over is set to rise from 9.7m to 17m, an increase of 76%.
The same trend towards a radical restructuring of society is visible everywhere:- in the UK, where there are now, for the first time in history, more people over 65 than there are children; in the United States, where 12.6% of the population was over 65 in 2000, compared to only 4.1% a century earlier and an expected 20% by 2030; in China, where the one-child policy has exacerbated global trends and the number of over-60s is anticipated to climb to 437m by 2050, representing more than a quarter of the population; and in the developing world, where a combination of falling birth rates and better health will see the most radical changes of all.
This development can be seen – and usually is – as an enormous problem. Who will care for these old people and work to pay for their pensions? How will health services ever stand the strain? How will society function at all when large numbers of people are in decline, dependent, needy?
There are unquestionably challenges ahead; it would be wrong to suggest that there are no difficulties associated with ageing. But getting old is not at all the same thing as dying. Unfortunately, the widespread belief that it is makes it virtually impossible to confront growing older, and helps explain why (for example) the ideal age for a woman, looks-wise, is now somewhere between 13 and 20. Nobody wants to think about ageing because it seems to have nothing to do with what preoccupies us for the rest of life. Getting older seems to exclude us from sex, fun, status, living to the full.
Age is too often used, as race and gender have been in the past, to create supposedly unbridgeable divides. Not all the changes brought about by an ageing population will be bad, and some may be very positive indeed. In fact, we’d better make sure they are, because the agebomb is coming whether we like it or not. It should not be beyond human ingenuity to find ways of allowing people to learn, contribute, create, have fun and feel greatly rewarded in the later decades of their lives.
Agebomb is an attempt to monitor the changing landscape brought about by population explosion; to spot the most interesting ideas to do with ageing around the world and to be a forum for discussion of what works, of the most pressing issues people are facing and the solutions they have found.
One of its underlying assumptions is that ‘old’ should not automatically be equated, as it so often is, with ‘bad’ or ‘declining’. Another is that the glib media tic of identifying people by age group (‘boomers’, ‘generation X’) is frequently misleading because there are far more differences within age cohorts than there are between them.
Agebomb is for everyone, because the ageing population affects the whole of society – its political tenor, how tax revenues are spent, how we organize ourselves. Many of us are having to care for elderly parents: a whole generation doing something that has never been done before, because in previous times parents died much earlier. (When retirement was first invented, by Bismarck, pensionable age was set at 65, because that was typically when old soldiers died). And, most importantly, if we start looking at life from the point of view of getting old, we might come up with very different ideas about what matters, which could have thought-provoking implications for the young.
While the population is getting older on the one hand, we are facing unprecedented pressure on public finances due to a worldwide recession on the other. Some services for the elderly will continue to be provided by the state, but there will remain a gap that will have to be filled, one way or another – by the market, by social enterprises, by charities, by family and friends. What will be most in demand in the coming years will be good ideas. Agebomb will try to identify them, wherever they come from.
Agebomb is published by Geraldine Bedell.