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Jaime-Lee Gardner
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Louise Martin
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Old age

where does it begin?

By Jennifer Stern

, |

Old age

where does it begin?

By Jennifer Stern

, |

3 min read

Age – it’s just a number. So when does ‘old age’ begin? If you asked that question in the middle of the previous century, the answer would have been 60. That’s when you were expected to retire, maybe grow roses or go fishing, and wait to die. Well, things have changed.

It’s not a number at all

According to James Carey, director of the UC Davis-based programme on Biodemographic Determinants of Life Span, today’s healthy, active 60- and 70-year-olds have the same mortality risk as a 45-year-old did at the beginning of the previous century, and living till 100 is becoming – well, not commonplace, but certainly not that unusual. And, along with that change in life expectancy comes an enormous change in life expectations – and lifestyles. There are still people who seem ‘old’ at 45, mostly due to stress, overwork, lifestyle choices or poor nutrition and/or bad luck. So how do we decide when we are ‘old’?

It’s not how long you’ve lived, it’s how long you have left

According to Carey, old age sort of starts at the beginning of the last 15 years of your life – or what you can reasonably expect to be the last 15 years. Of course, this is much harder to measure than one’s simple chronological age, which is basic arithmetic. But the figures do make sense. A 60-year-old in 1950 would have been considered lucky to have celebrated a 75th birthday, whereas today a 75-year-old is likely to celebrate that birthday by going skydiving, bungy jumping or whitewater rafting.

Another way of defining old age is by behaviour. When you know that mastering a new skill, or learning a new app can confer an advantage, but you ‘can’t be bothered’, or you think ‘it’s too hard’, you’re old.

All change

And here’s where it gets really interesting. For most of our existence as human beings, we became productive as soon as we could walk on our own two legs, and we partnered up with someone, and started breeding, pretty soon after puberty. (For most of history, a twenty-year-old woman who had not had a child was considered a barren old maid – someone to be greatly pitied.)

By the second half of the 20th century, the norm in much of the developed world was that you spent the first 20-odd years of your life learning. Then – in this order – you got a job, then you got married and moved out of your parents’ house and ‘settled down’. Then you had children – hopefully before the dreaded age of 30 by which a first-time mother was labelled an ‘elderly primigravida’. The age criterion for qualifying for this flattering label has since been changed to 35.

But as our lives get longer, our childhood gets longer, too, so our children are dependent for longer, which means we have to work for longer. And, here’s the interesting bit: our retirement gets longer too. So the cast-in-stone order in which the mid-20th-century child became an adult, a spouse and householder and a parent has changed. Significantly.

Musical houses, musical jobs

Generation Z and millennials tend to study longer, stay comfortably with their parents for longer, and – generally – take longer to make up their minds about committing to jobs, careers, life partners. And the process has not just stretched out – it’s segued from a well-understood and accepted linear progression to a Moebius strip or a double helix. Millennials and Zs may stay home throughout their university careers, stay at university until they’re 30, and then meet someone special. They may even have a child or two in their 30s. And they may move into a new home, or they may not. And, even if they do, the chances are pretty good they will move back in, so best not to turn Johnny’s bedroom into a home gym just yet. And here’s where it gets interesting. While the kids may move back into the family home – with or without partners and/or children – they may well find their parents going back to university to maybe do that arts degree they really wanted to do instead of being sensible and doing engineering or commerce. Or perhaps – and this really is not at all uncommon – Mum and Dad may well ‘retire’ from the jobs they’ve been doing for years, and find whole new careers.

So how do we cope?

That’s a good question. How can you plan for a life and family trajectory that seems to be spiralling out of control subject to no known rules? You loosen up a bit, you plan for change, and craft your lifestyle and your living space around possibilities – not prescriptions. Life’s an adventure – grab it with both hands.

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