The 20- to 30-year gap has come (but it now seems as if it’s going)

Alan J. Scott, Consultant Sociologist: 

An article in New Scientist on autism suggests, ‘Our understanding of the condition has been skewed by an overly medical focus.’ The same can be said about ageing. In 44 BC, Cicero in his essay Concerning old age, argued that old age is not a failing mind and illness, rather it is a time of positive opportunities and productive possibilities. He also pointed out there is a distinction between ‘normal old’ and ‘sick old’. Illness is something added to life, not a consequence of it. Guides have told many people who have visited Rome that in the years around the start of the Christian era, Romans died when aged about 35. This is not true. It was the average life expectancy and was brought about because half the children born in ancient Rome died before they were 10. If you reached 10 you could expect to reach your 50s if you were not killed during your compulsory military service, and usually went on to make 60. If you got to 60 you could expect to reach 70 or beyond.

Those who undertook research into retirement and ageing in the 20th century painted a depressing picture of the experience. They found people died in their 50s and 60s with only a relative few living to an older age. They reported neglect, poverty, ignorance and sickness as being the older person’s more usual lot. Reports circulating currently report neglect, theft, excessive charges, and untreated sickness as being the lot of older people in aged care facilities or nursing homes. Those who choose to stay in their own home are perhaps better off in some ways but lose out in others.

If we move away from the medical model to the social, it becomes apparent that ageing today is an increasing social issue. Retirement no longer marks the end of working life, with a year or two of further life expectancy. It marks the point at which people can get release from the power of corporations, the Public Service, universities or whoever has been on their back for the previous 40–50 years. In Australia, superannuation ought now to give retirees freedom to do what they want to do, in their own time. This social change has become an issue, largely because of the medical developments that have made it possible, but these developments have tended to disguise the social changes that have come with them.

It does mean that warehousing retirees and providing activities to fill in time is no longer a real solution. On several occasions I have offered to go to a retirement community and give talks or provide others who would give talks on a range of subject but have been told by young health care workers, ‘These are old people, they wouldn’t understand things like that.’ People I know in aged care facilities tell me they find the places boring, because bingo and entertainers are not a notably edifying occupation.

When I was born, my statistical life expectancy was 55. I am now 86, I have been retired for 23 years, and although I owe some of this to the medical model, the specialists I see these days tell me to go away as I am too healthy.

People reach pensionable age today at 65, and this will soon increase to 67, and they usually retire around this time. There are, of course, some people who are in a position to retire before the pension would be available. When they withdraw from workforce, whether they realise it or not, this presents a social issue because we have no agreed status for these people in society. When people retire at 65 or 67 they could be looking at a further life expectancy of perhaps up to 30 years or more. For some, that could be more time than they spent in the workforce. It is gradually being recognised that this is no longer a time for just sitting in ‘God’s waiting room’. Our usual understanding of life’s social structure runs through Childhood, Youth, Young Adults, Middle Age, and then Old Age, with old age being seen as a condition, rather than an opportunity. Of course, there are people who have seen the possibilities of post retirement as opportunity, such as the grey nomads who enjoy life travelling around the country. The New South Wales government is now providing money to enable people at the far end of life to play the sport of their choice, in Sydney at least. There are also thousands of older people who volunteer to work in a variety of organisations across Australia. A study by Lisel O’Dwyer, at the University of Adelaide has revealed that the value of volunteers to the Australian economy is worth more than $200 billion a year, which is more than mining industry contributes, but none of which is recorded on any balance sheet.

Since ‘old age’ has become a new period of life it has ceased to be understandable in terms of any common or totalising experience. It is no longer the fixed and homogeneous process of per­sonal and physiological decay by which it has been seen in much of recorded history. Living beyond 65 is now an identifiable period of life that we need to integrate into our understanding of human existence, at least in Western society. What we should call it has yet to be determined. As a start, we might call it our ‘Time of self-determination’.


The government response to ageing has gone from a welfarist to a neoliberal approach. This has seen attempts to move away from a universal system of support for the aged to one which increases the age at which a means-and-assets tested pension might be paid, with demands that people remain employed to an older age. In doing this, governments are making an assumption that through superannuation, older people will be substantially responsible for their own lives.

However, people today are looking at what they can do in their retirement rather than how long they must wait until they die. People who are out of work or struggling to get by in precarious jobs may be young, in their 50s or over 65, and they are all confronted by neoliberals (and any other liberals for that matter) proclaiming the trickledown theory of economics. However, the liberal rhetoric usually omits the comment of the great Canadian/American economists J. K. Galbraith, who commented: ‘that supply-side economics was merely a cover for the trickle-down approach to economic policy—what an older and less elegant generation called the horse-and-sparrow theory: If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.’

From research I did 13 years ago to research I have done this year, it is clear that few, if any, of the issues I drew attention to then have been properly faced up to. Retirees today no longer expect to be sitting around waiting to die. They have their own agenda to accomplish things they want to do. They want to study topics they were prevented from studying when they were young. This would include women whose parents thought education for women was a waste of time and those whose professional lives took them in a direction that made other study impossible. I know of a prominent Sydney lawyer who retired and bought a house with a built-in astronomical observatory because that was what he always wanted to do, and he is now a prominent amateur astronomer.

Retired people also acknowledge that they would like to pass on the knowledge and skills they have learned to other people who might find them useful or interesting. The University of the Third Age, and the Men’s Shed movement have been able to provide a place for some of this to happen. However, they are not in every town and do not cover all interest. Other people may enrol in formal university or TAFE courses, but this involves costs.

Schulz has pointed out ‘That the future economic welfare of people of all ages is determined by many factors, which popular economics has ignored. These include technological change, entrepreneurial initiatives and risk-taking, managerial skills, government provision of infrastructure, savings, investment in human capital as well as business capital, labour-force participation levels and so on. It ought to be obvious by now that ageing populations and social security costs have relatively little to do with economic outcomes’.

I got this far when my next copy of New Scientist arrived. In it was an article showing that life expectancy in Australia, the U.K., the U.S., Japan and several European countries was now going backwards. The number of people dying at a younger age is increasing. It seems that some of the measures in the medical model are not working in the ways they once were. Although there is, as yet, no clear answer as to why life expectancy is getting shorter, the range of possibilities is discussed in the article. In any case, the gap of extra years will be with us for a while yet, and there is still a long way to go before retirement plus one or two years is again the norm.

We still have to deal with people like me who are 30 years beyond the predicted life expectancy at birth. My solution has been to keep my mind active as well as everything else. I currently have five jobs. I write a about a sociological issue for the Applied Sociologist Thematic Group each month, I do research for the local museum, I lecture in local high schools for NSW Marine Rescue, I have an online mentoring session each week, and I meet with a weekly discussion group on current issues. In addition, I write articles for various other organisations.

It seems that we are at a crossroads. If the 20- to 30-year gap between retirement and death continues, governments will have an ever-increasing older population to cope with, and issues of housing, infrastructure and transport will continue to challenge them. If the death rate continues to fall, then all those companies who have been spending their employees’ superannuation contributions will suddenly have to find a lot of money.

In my 2005 study of retirees in the 21st century, I raised the issue of whether there could be a fixed life span or whether it could be increased indefinitely. I asked this question:

Whichever approach proves to be the correct one, the social decisions that will be required ought to be given serious attention now. We have already doubled life expectancy over the past century or so, giving a new segment to the lifecycle that has yet to be effectively recognised. There is, thus far, little understanding of how older people can be integrated into the emerging society. This has been one of the unforeseen consequences of removing older people from the workplace. When they were few in number, they could be left to one side. Now that their numbers are growing, trying to marginalise them or attempts to keep them tied to the workplace or whatever ‘solutions’ are devised, they all have social implications that need to be clearly identified.

The New Scientist of 26 August drew attention to what is apparently called ‘The Golden Cohort’, people who were born between 1925 and 1935. For no clear reason, this group has been experiencing higher rates of life expectancy than those born before or after.  Now we face not one but two opposing social problems, with the Golden Cohort living longer and the following generations having shorter lives. The Golden Cohort was born during the Great Depression and lived through the austerity of the Second World War and these could have been factors in extending their lives, but there seems, as yet, no clear connection. There were also developments in the medical sphere that contributed, by finding ways to remove diseases from communities. However, this group is now beginning to fade from the overall death rates, so it seems likely that the extended death rate is somehow connected to what happened both medically and socially during this period, but which is now not having the same effect. The New Scientist article also notes that: ‘doctors have long been predicting that today’s children will be some of the first in history to have shorter lives than their parents thanks to the obesity epidemic’.

How the structure of society is changed, what causes these changes and what response is needed to these changes, is the work of sociology. What we usually hear is political ideology about the society politicians want, an economic assessment of what will make the rich richer. However, what is really needed is the voice of sociology dealing with the realities of living in any society and explaining how the present state of things has emerged, and what needs to be changed, realistically to make life better for the people.

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