When is a person no longer middle-aged? 55? 60? How do we define old? Many of us would consider 65 the turning point. After all, in Australia, people traditionally reach retirement age and can qualify for the Age Pension at 65, which has quite naturally come to symbolise the entry point into older age.
Research from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Vienna, Austria has come up with some refreshing new information that may well turn our current thinking about the retirement age on its head. They argue that instead of measuring an individual by age, a better measure is how long the person has left to live.
In Palaeolithic times, individuals would be lucky to reach the age of 30. Two hundred years ago, a 60-year-old would be considered a very old person. In the 1950s, a 65-year-old person living in a developed country could anticipate another 15 years ahead. Today, it is anticipated that baby boomers could live much longer than their parents’ generation, living well into their 90s.
How old is middle aged? To answer this question, according to the IIASA, old age should be defined by having 15 or fewer years left to live, which technically means we remain middle-aged until we’re 74. Today we are healthier, fitter and are remaining more mentally and socially stimulated – all of which contributes to good health, later retirement and improved life expectancy.
I could be handy, mending a fuse
When your lights have gone
You can knit a sweater by the fireside
Sunday morning go for a ride
Doing the garden, digging the weeds
Who could ask for more?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four?
When I’m 64, Lennon, McCartney
As the Beatles attested, 64 was once assumed old. But by today’s standards, 64 is merely middle-aged, not retiring age.
Some of us have an easier time of it than others, though. Money may not be able to buy love, but it certainly can buy us extra time in terms of a healthier life. Researchers point out that affluence has a profound influence on longevity. Those who are affluent have an increased life expectancy of an average of nine years when compared to those who are poor.
People from poor countries, disadvantaged backgrounds or those given fewer opportunities or access to education also have a harder time in old age – and consequently suffer poorer health, with a greater need for resources.
Statistics around our potential longevity are startling. They are not just comforting for the many of us that are in no hurry to grow old; they provoke a multitude of questions and challenges for our government and society as a whole. Questions like: what is an appropriate Australian retirement age? And, how do we support people as they age past the traditional retiring age?
Australia’s growing number of retirement age pensioners may put a huge strain on our public spending. With many more elderly people dipping into the pension for years longer than anticipated, it may be challenging for the government to keep up. Compounding this is the burden of elderly housing and aged care.
These needs are often overemphasised, though, according to a 2015 report by the World Health Organisation in Geneva. Contributions by elderly people far outweigh the financial investment of caring for them. Older people make considerable contributions to the community, society and families particularly through family support like providing child care to grandchildren.
Also, as many Australian 65-year-olds are far healthier, sharper and less dependent than those of previous generations, they continue to be active for longer. Many of these older people don’t want to slow down and continue to contribute to the workforce or run their own businesses.
Society, and the workforce, not only in Australia but also in other developed countries need to take these new statistics into account and not discriminate against older aged workers by considering them “past it” or over the retirement age.
Attempts to break down barriers in the Australian workforce have already started. The government has commenced an initiative to keep Australians working for longer with the Restart Programme. Currently, the government offers a wage subsidy of up to $10,000 if you employee an eligible mature aged jobseeker for 12 months or more (providing they work for more than 30 hours a week).
This program has come under some scrutiny, though. Former National Seniors Chief Executive Michael O’Neill says that the government needs to do more to encourage mature age people to stay in the workforce, especially as the retirement age to qualify for the pension is scheduled to increase. Historically, incentivising employers with cash bonuses hasn’t worked well if offered in isolation from other support programs.
Professor Philip Taylor from the School of Business and Economics at Monash University also stated that there was little evidence that incentive schemes targeting older people succeeded. It can send out negative stereotypical messages surrounding elderly people that they are somehow ‘difficult to employ’. Also, it is unlikely that it will attract the long-term unemployed or low-skilled older workers. Those that would benefit most would most likely be mature, highly skilled workers.
“For many people, 70 is the new 50 and signifies the quiet revolution that has taken place in longevity.”
Some suggest that better use of money would be to offer retraining programs for older people aimed at introducing new skills, and most importantly, changing the community’s attitude towards retirement age by creating a more inclusive environment, both socially and in the workplace.
Sage Institute of Aged Care – it’s more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.
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