We’re living longer but even that is worrying us


what if it is a good thing? To start with, there is no sweet spot with
life expectancy. The orthodoxy is: the higher, the better. In Zimbabwe
a combination of HIV/AIDS, starvation, bad sanitation and the
wellspring of these ills, poor governance, has cut life expectancy at
birth to 40 years. In Japan, the country with the highest life
expectancy, you can look to live to 82. Nowhere in any census or policy
document will you see anyone saying: “Some kind of midpoint would be
nice . . .  61?” This is for a number of reasons, the most obvious being
that people tend not to want to die.

The rise
in the number of the old is a massive human success story: life
expectancy increases because of better education, greater wealth, lower
infant mortality, better healthcare, less disease, the reduction of
armed conflict, and the development of technology and its application
in pursuit of good. It is, frankly, insane to look at an ageing
population and not rejoice. Why do we even have a concept of public
health, of co-operation, of sharing knowledge, if not to extend life,
wherever we find it?

The problem, then, is not age as such
but the proportion of the aged: not only will the old outnumber the
young globally but, in 11 major nations, the population is ageing while
numbers decline – an unprecedented combination. It will lead to a very
substantially increased “older dependency ratio”, which is taken,
inexorably, to be damaging to economies.

Again, this
presentation ignores benefits that are much more significant than any
country’s gross domestic product. It is a consensus among
environmentalists that a decline in human fertility will, if not solve
the planet’s problems, at least give us some breathing space in which
to solve them. The spectre of Malthus, the world’s most famous Guy Who
Was Wrong, muddies the water unnecessarily. Yes, he was wrong; and yes,
the neo-Malthusian Paul Ehrlich fell victim to overblown predictions of
catastrophe in the 1960s.

In The Population Bomb he
wrote: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the
world will undergo famines – hundreds of millions of people are going
to starve to death.” That kind of drama did not transpire but he was
not far off: 300 million people have died of hunger or related causes
since 1967.

But just because burgeoning fertility has not
been the catastrophe some have claimed, it does not mean we should not
take heart from its decline. And if fertility does fall, then of course
this will tip the balance in favour of the old.

difficulty with those “worrying” older dependency ratios is that they
are all based on a traditional retirement age – which most of us know
to be outdated. For Britain, the country’s National Association of
Pension Funds points out that women’s eligibility for the state pension
was reduced from 70 to 60 in 1940. The pre-war situation was the
hardboiled if bizarre one that life expectancy as a woman was 64, and
yet you did not qualify for state aid until six years later. For men it
was moderately worse. Their life expectancy was 59 in 1941, and their
eligibility for state pension was not brought down to 65 until 1948.
The state has never expected to support people for 21 years before
death; rather, for a year or two, or hopefully minus six.

counter-argument is that as life expectancy rises so do chronic and
degenerative conditions, so that people just are not well enough to
work in the five years before their death, as they were when life
expectancy was lower.

This is contested territory, though,
and the spectre of decades of disability at the end of life is not
borne out by the figures. Many prefer the “dynamic equilibrium”
prediction, in which the factors extending life – a healthier
lifestyle, faster detection of conditions, better treatment – also
minimise disability; and, where there is ill health, it is compressed
into a short period before death.

Our ageing world, in
other words, is brilliant news. This is what we have been working
towards for as long as the concept of working towards anything has
existed. The response so far makes me think that maybe there is just no
pleasing a statistician.

Zoe Williams is a columnist with The Guardian, in which this article first appeared.

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