A common thread that runs through so much of our work is that things are better than we think they are. Whether we’re thinking about crime rates, levels of unemployment or the rates of immigration, our perceptions are not in line with reality. The same is true when it comes to our later life; globally, only a third of us are looking forward to our old age.
These figures start to make some sense when you dig into what people’s expectations of old age are. What should be our golden years are perceived as a time of uncertainty and decline. While people appreciate that there are good things that come from having more time available – like being able to spend it with family and friends (36%), on hobbies and leisure (32%) and on holidays and travel (26%) – they identify a number of downsides too. Chief among these are not having enough money to live on (30%), losing mobility (26%), losing memory (24%) and being unable to do the things we once could (22%).
But what is the reality? While there are, of course, always exceptions, the data available paints a much more positive picture of later life than the one we typically imagine. Most western studies show that people in later life are some of the happiest in society. Data from the Office for National Statistics depicts lifetime happiness figures as being like a shallow bowl; after a dip in our 40s and 50s (when we’re busy looking after kids, and our own ageing parents while also working) happiness creeps up, with levels of personal wellbeing in our mid-60s to mid-70s very positive indeed.49
That said, loneliness is a real issue, and is highlighted as a concern by one in five (19%). In the UK, a third (32%) of all those aged 65 and over live alone, and most of these (70%) are women.50 This is partly to do with life expectancy differentials – women live longer than men – but it is also down to the rise of the ‘silver splicer’. While in the UK divorce rates are down overall, older people are bucking the trend. From 2005-15, the number of men aged 65+ who divorced went up by 23 percentage points and women by 38 percentage points.51 There are a number of hypotheses as to why – from the increased economic empowerment and independence of women, through to rising longevity prompting panicked assessments about whether another thirty years with the same person is really what happy ever after means.
But even if divorce rates are on the up, it doesn’t mean that people in later life are giving up on love, or sex. US data shows that two in five (40%) of those aged 65-80 are sexually active, and two-thirds are interested in sex. Across the pond, around half (52%) of us aged 65+ feel that we do not have enough sex. For those who are having sex; a report by the former Chief Medical Officer showed that prevalence of STIs in people aged between 50 and 70 has risen by more than a third in the last decade, a pattern we can see repeated in the US.52
Older people are also more connected than we perhaps give them credit for. Yes, there’s a gap – and of the 4.8 million people in the UK who have never used the internet, 3.8 million of them are aged over 65 – but it is closing.53 What’s more, we find that across a variety of measures people in later life are more likely to be techno-optimists – particularly when compared to younger generations. For instance, globally, more of those aged 16-24 agree about the threat of technology than those aged 60-64 (53% vs 44%).54
If nothing else, people in later life certainly have more money. Pensioner poverty remains a scourge – in the UK, 16% of pensioners live in poverty – but this is not the whole story.55 Here, the over-50s account for around 47% of all UK consumer spending,56 helped by increases in their disposable income; from 2008-18, the median disposable income for retired households increased by £3,200 per annum, compared to just £900 for those in work.57
These misperceptions matter. They prevent us from engaging with and planning for our later life – making it more likely our worst fears about it will be realised – but they also mean that older people are underserved; by governments who don’t design policies to meet their needs, and brands who don’t cater for the lives they actually lead. We all need to stop thinking about the ageing population as a challenge and, instead, as an opportunity and a privilege.