What to call the time of life between work and old age?
To get the most out of longer lives, a new age category is needed.
WHAT do you call someone who is over 65 but not yet elderly? This stage of life, between work and decrepitude, lacks a name. “Geriactives” errs too much on the side of senescence. “Sunsetters” and “nightcappers” risk being patronising. Perhaps “Nyppies” (Not Yet Past It) or “Owls” (Older, Working Less, Still earning) ring truer.
Branding an age category might sound like a frivolous exercise. But life stages are primarily social constructs, and history shows that their emergence can trigger deep changes in attitudes. Such change is needed if the questions that swirl around rising longevity are to get a fitting answer.
End of Generation zzz
Before 1800 no country in the world had an average life expectancy at birth beyond 40. Today there is not a country that does not. Since 1900, more years have been added to human life than in the rest of history combined, initially by reducing child mortality and lately by stretching lifespans. Longevity is one of humanity’s great accomplishments.
Yet it is seen as one of society’s great headaches. The problem lies in the increasing dependency of the old on the young. By 2100, the ratio of 65-plussers to “working-age” people will triple. As the world greys, growth, tax revenues and workforces will decline while spending on pensions and health care will increase. So, at least, goes the orthodoxy.
Doom-mongers tend to miss a bigger point, however. Those extra years of life are predominantly healthy ones. Five of the additional six years that a British boy born in 2015 can expect to live, compared with one born in 1990, will be healthy, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, at the University of Washington. Too many governments and firms fail to recognise this fact, instead lumping all the extra years in the damning category of 65 and over. This binary way of thinking, seeing retirement as a cliff edge over which workers and consumers suddenly tumble, bears little relation to the real world. It also encourages unimaginative policy, whereby the retirement age is occasionally moved as lifespans lengthen.
A more radical approach would start by acknowledging that, in the rich world at least, many of the old are still young. As this week’s special report argues, they want to work, but more flexibly. They want to spend money, too. In western Europe the over-60s will account for 59% of consumption growth in cities between now and 2030, says McKinsey, a consultancy.
Declaring a new stage of life could help change perceptions. It has done so before. Today’s conception of childhood emerged in the 19th century, paving the way for child-protection laws and a golden age of children’s literature. Spotty, awkward 15-year-olds predated the 1940s, but only then did mystified adults coin the label “teenagers”, fuelling all sorts of products and services, from bobby socks to the music industry. In 1944 Life wrote that “American businessmen, many of whom have teen-age daughters, have only recently begun to realise that teen-agers make up a big and special market.” By the mid-1960s both Time and Newsweek had splashed “The Teen-Agers” on their covers.
Marking out youthful old age as a distinct phase of life might have a similar effect, prodding employers and policymakers to think differently about how to keep the young old active. As life becomes longer, the word “retirement”, which literally means withdrawal to a place of seclusion, has become misleading. At 65 you are not clapped out, but pre-tired. So, as they embark on the next stage, here’s to all those pre-tirees.
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Over 65 shades of grey”