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The rise of the “new old”

  • Old age is now considered to begin significantly later in life.
  • Increasing longevity is portrayed negatively, but public perceptions are evolving. While political discussions and the media focus on the costs of ageing, people see benefits in a longer life.
  • The image of the "young old" has made people realise that a new, meaningful and happy phase of life is possible post-retirement. This perception is also driven by role models they observe in their personal environment.
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The demographic trends are clear: European countries are witnessing a steady ageing of their populations. How citizens perceive these unprecedented increases in the number of people who live longer is more complex. In an Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) survey, sponsored by Swiss Life, of individuals aged 35 to 65 in Germany, France, Austria and Switzerland, 42% of respondents say that increasing longevity tends to be portrayed more as a problem than a benefit to society, while 30% believe the opposite. That the majority should say greater longevity is seen negatively in their country comes as no surprise to Professor François Höpflinger, a sociologist at the University of Zurich’s Centre for Gerontology, who states: “Overall, political discourses are currently strongly concentrated on the costs of ageing and less on the opportunities.”

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Disconnects and convergences

Depictions of longevity are evolving. French survey respondents differ from their peers in the other three countries surveyed in that they see longevity portrayed more positively: 43% say that it is depicted as a benefit rather than a problem, while 28% believe the opposite. However, Hans Groth, chair of the World Demographic and Ageing Forum based in St Gallen, Switzerland, notes that while “often the French are positive on ageing”, he does not think their views diverge too far from European norms. “There is a kind of convergence on these views, with different intensities by country. The direction is the same.”

42%
of respondents say that increasing longevity tends to be portrayed more as a problem than a benefit to society, while 30% believe the opposite.

If depictions of ageing are in flux, it may be that they are catching up with popular perceptions. Indeed, Dr Groth believes that “what the media say is disconnected from what individuals are thinking. People are much more advanced than the press think.” The EIU survey respondents overwhelmingly believe that increasing longevity offers substantial benefits to society as a whole (fewer than 2% cite no significant benefits). The benefits they expect to be derived from greater longevity include the potential for deeper, extended family connections (53%) and through the increased leisure opportunities for those who live longer after they choose to retire (51%). Similarly, on an individual level, 65% look forward to, or currently enjoy, having more time to engage in pastimes and leisure activities, and 44% say the same of more contact with friends and family.

2%
The EIU survey respondents overwhelmingly believe that increasing longevity offers substantial benefits to society as a whole (fewer than 2% cite no significant benefits).

Ask the right questions

Generalisations can overstate the concerns the public as a whole has about ageing. When discussing longevity, Professor Höpflinger says: “How you put the questions has an effect on the answers. In general, discussion in the abstract is more negative.” But when known individuals or groups are discussed—from prominent examples of active elderly people to family members of the person engaged in the conversation—views tend to become more positive. As a result, Professor Höpflinger explains that the research he has seen indicates that inter-generational relations within families are stronger than ever in Switzerland, Germany, France and Austria.  In contrast, he adds, views that individuals hold about other generations as a whole have actually deteriorated, with more of the young, for example, believing that the elderly control too much of the economy’s money.

This is consistent with other research, which tends to show a divergence of opinion on population ageing.  Views fluctuate from worries about increasing longevity to positive attitudes towards senior citizens: that they are socially valuable or good sources of emotional support.  An extensive 2008 study found that “citizens generally continue to take a favourable view of the role which older people may play in society, in spite of their concerns related to ‘population ageing’.”

Perception vs reality

In other words, the public seems to be worried about the potential negative impact of longevity, but the reality they see around them is much less troubling. Societies are struggling to adjust as once theoretical worries collide with a far more positive reality. Indeed, this may be a major reason for differing perceptions of ageing and longevity, in both public discourse and on an individual basis. “The public perception of ageing in Germany is getting better”, says Franz Müntefering, chair of the German Federal Association of Senior Citizens’ Organisations (BAGSO). This is taking place, he adds, “due to individuals’ own experience and the experience that they see others having.” Dr Groth sees a similar dynamic in Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe: “An increasing number of positive role models from civil society are driving perceptions.  If you have these examples, it becomes harder and harder to have negative views.”

Who is “old”?

One way of squaring this circle of old worries and new realities has been through reconceptualising where the so-called “young old”—those ranging in age from 65 to 75 years—belong. In a 2008 European Social Survey a majority of respondents in Germany consistently described themselves as old rather than middle-aged only once they had reached 69; in France the figure was 72, and in Switzerland 79. Longevity has only continued to increase since then.

This is not just the amour propre of those advancing in years—it reflects a wider societal trend. When the same survey asked people of all ages when old age began, the most common selection in Switzerland and France was 70. Indeed, in Switzerland over half (51%) gave a figure of 70 or above, or stated that the answer depended on the person in question. The equivalent share of respondents in France and Germany was 44% and 38%, respectively.

The golden age

Professor Höpflinger notes: “Now you find that, with the so-called ‘younger old’, there are positive images of early retirement, and the negative images concentrate more and more on the very old.” In Switzerland and parts of Austria and Germany, he adds, this reflects a new reality. There, “the ‘young old’ have the highest rate of affluence among any age group” and are the most active older individuals. As a result, “a new image of the younger old, of a golden age, is very present, and I think younger people realise that retirement creates a lot of possibilities.”  Mr Müntefering agrees: “Most people now realise that, after retirement, a new phase of life exists which can be a good, meaningful and happy one. This is becoming normal.”

“A new image of the younger old, of a golden age, is very present, and I think younger people realise that retirement creates a lot of possibilities.”
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François Höpflinger

Sociologist at the University of Zurich’s Centre for Gerontology.

In Switzerland, Professor Höpflinger observes, this shift has been accompanied by a bottom-up flourishing of projects and organisations that link members of different generations around common interests. These include, for example, gardening, museum tours or collaborative working on shared projects. “It is a real movement”, he stresses. Other groups are also consciously trying to reshape popular images. The “GrossmütterRevolution”, for example, a platform active since 2010 and supported by Migros Zürich, a co-operative, works towards replacing traditional perceptions of elderly, housebound grandmothers with socially active and activist women.

Shifting perceptions

This redefinition of who is “old” constitutes a major, positive shift in perception. The difficulty is that it may already be out of date. Views about ageing are often shaped by what people see their older relatives experiencing, but given the ongoing extension of healthy lifespans, it is likely that their own older years will turn out to be considerably different. For example, a 2015 study of more than 400 individuals aged over 80 in Austria—whom nobody would call young—found that, despite the widespread presence of frailty and multi-morbidity, the sample included a “relatively large group of men and women in a comparatively good health condition, with a high level of independence and an autonomous way of life.” Moreover, according to the study’s authors, the results provided a “contradiction to the prevailing and mainly deficit-oriented image of old age, meaning the association of old age with illness and need of long-term care.” The future possibilities may even exceed those expectations.

Perceptions of old age, then, are clearly in flux. Concerns about longevity itself are stubbornly enduring, but are slowly being overcome by the experience of living in an older society. In some ways, the immediate post-retirement years, once feared as a time of being put out to pasture, are now coming to be seen as a golden age.

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In a 2008 European Social Survey a majority of respondents in Germany consistently described themselves as old rather than middle-aged only once they had reached 69; in France the figure was 72, and in Switzerland 79.

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