One of the few certainties in life is that time passes. We are all older today than we were yesterday, and we’ll be older again tomorrow. Over the last few decades, modern science, medicine, and technology have helped people live longer than ever before. What does this mean for society? And how should we treat our elderly? We look at some of the key debates surrounding the topics of age.
What is meant by an ageing population?
The world’s population is, on average, getting older. Just about every country is seeing an increasing number and proportion of older people in their populations. This phenomenon, known as an ageing population, happens when the average age of a country increases. There are usually two reasons for this:
- Rise in life expectancy. People are living longer than before. This is mainly down to improvements in medical care and lifestyle changes, such as the decline in smoking.
- Decrease in fertility rates. The fertility rate is the average number of children a woman gives birth to in their lifetime. There has been a global decrease in this number, from 4.7 in 1950 to 2.4 in 2017. This is down to a decrease in childhood deaths (meaning women have fewer babies), more access to contraception, and more women in work.
These factors combined are expected to produce some significant changes to many societies. For example:
- In the UK in 2014, the average age of the population exceeded 40 for the first time ever. By 2040, it’s estimated that one in seven people in the country will be aged over 75.
- In the US, the number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to nearly double from 52 million in 2018 to 95 million by 2060.
- In Japan, people aged 65 and over now make up nearly a quarter of the population and, in twenty years, this number will reach one-third.
Is it a problem?
With such a clear trend emerging, it’s important to look at the potential impact an ageing population will have on our societies. There will undeniably be a shift in the way we view old age and the way we approach and plan for it. There are certainly some potential challenges:
- Healthcare. As people get older, they’re more likely to suffer from a variety of long-term illnesses. There are concerns that an increase in the number of old people and a lack of resources and healthcare professionals could put a strain on healthcare services.
- Work. Because people will live for longer, they’ll have to stay in the workforce for longer. Retirement ages will increase, and people will need more pension savings to live.
- Housing. The ageing population will change the demand for housing. Most likely, there will be an increase in the need for specialised housing that’s adapted for older residents.
- Infrastructure. It will be increasingly important that the ageing population remains connected to society. Issues of mobility, transport, and technology all need considering.
Clearly, there are many potential problems that our ageing societies will have to face. However, there are positives too:
- The economy. A larger pool of workers will mean a bigger and more skilled workforce with more experience and knowledge. Technological changes will mean that people have the opportunity to keep learning. This could lead to a more productive workforce.
- The community. Older generations will be healthier and more active than ever before. This will allow them to contribute more to society, sharing their knowledge and experience with younger generations.
- The family. Family structures will likely change as people start to live longer. Older generations will be able to provide care and support for younger generations. Grandparents will be more able to care for grandchildren, freeing up their children.
There’s every chance that in the future, older generations will be healthier, happier, more productive, and more valued than ever before. But for that to happen, some current attitudes must change.
What is ageism?
According to the World Health Organisation, ‘ageism is the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of their age.’ Such age discrimination includes instances when people are treated unfairly because of their age and the way older people are represented in the media.
Those experiencing ageism often experience negative impacts on their confidence, mental health, job prospects, and financial situation. Some studies show it may also impact their physical health.
Worryingly, ageism is a prejudice that’s more ‘normalised’ than others such as sexism or racism. A recent report demonstrated that over a third of people in the UK admitted to discriminating against others because of their age.
Positive attitudes towards ageing are associated with higher levels of wellbeing and better health and longer lives among older generations. We need to move society’s perception of old age from something that is to be feared to something that is embraced.
What can we do to help?
As the World Health Organisation notes, ‘with populations around the world ageing rapidly, we need to act now to generate a positive effect on individuals and society.’ We have to change attitudes about age and ageing so that we embrace our ageing population. Here are some of the ways we can help, as individuals and as a society:
- Community action. There needs to be less of a divide between ‘old people’ and ‘young people’. Communities can encourage activities where people of all ages have opportunities to interact. We also need to raise awareness about the myths of ageing, such as that all elderly people are less adventurous.
- Change attitudes. The media tends to spread inaccurate stereotypes about old people. The image of cranky old people as comical or cynical characters is far too common. We need positive role models and portrayals in the media to change attitudes.
- Challenge behaviours. Like any prejudiced behaviour, it’s important that allies and advocates speak out against ageism. Don’t let casual jokes and hurtful comments go unchallenged. We can all raise awareness about ageism.
- Change laws. Our laws already protect against discrimination of many forms. Age discrimination should also be covered under such legislation. Although these laws exist in some countries, they’re not as far-reaching as with other forms of prejudice.
- Support causes. There are many groups speaking out against ageism already. Causes such as the Global Campaign to Combat Ageism are raising awareness, and many companies are making a stand against ageism.