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Middle-age is getting longer—and giving us a chance of a better world

An ageing population presents serious challenges. But it should also come us a relief to our planet

In the 2020s, the number of over-65s on the planet will overtake the number of children under five. This profound demographic shift is a consequence of longer lives and plummeting birth rates outside sub-Saharan Africa. It will require us to change our thinking about the social contract, healthcare, work and the rhythm of careers, even the very notion of family: some households will have multiple generations living under one roof; others will need to build support networks through neighbours and peers, not children.

We have tended to duck these issues partly because we fear that greying populations will burden the state, and weigh down economies. But we should be far more ambitious about what it can mean to be over 65. It’s not old age that’s getting longer, it’s middle age. Millions of people are already in what I call “Extra Time.” In Illinois, 70-somethings who took up jogging in the 1970s have been found to have the muscle strength and aerobic capacity of 40-somethings. In Okinawa, a Pacific island, two-thirds of 97-year olds are still living independently. In the UK, one in four adults are “unretiring” and going back to work—some for financial reasons, others for the sense of purpose and camaraderie.

What we are witnessing is the decoupling of biological from chronological age. Two years ago, a flamboyant Dutchman called Emile Ratelband asked a court to make him legally 20 years younger. Being 69, he said, was preventing him getting dates on Tinder. His doctor had told him his body was that of a 45-year old. The court declined. But why should this man have felt the need to change his date of birth? Why can’t we, instead, change our view of what it means to be 69?

I’m not just talking about delaying retirement, but about changing the career timetable that we carry in our heads, which organisations follow. Many employers persist in putting people on the leadership track at the tender age of 30, just as the demands of parenthood are about to kick in. It’s still normal to think of the over-55s as a group to be gracefully managed out, not encouraged to plan another 20 years. We rarely train the over-50s, but neuroscience is showing that old dogs can, in fact, learn new tricks: we keep producing new brain cells throughout life. New discoveries point the way to how we might keep our brains sharper for longer. The knowledge that older people use different parts of their brain to learn from younger ones, for example, should underpin a wholesale effort to upskill those in later life.

Longer lives don’t demand that we stay in the same job forever. But they do imply that we need to keep challenging ourselves, and drop the idea of promotion by seniority—or we will price ourselves out of a job. It’s also clear that human beings need a strong sense of purpose: feeling needed has been shown to contribute to significantly better health. In Africa, Japan and Germany, I have found groups of old people making significant contributions to their societies. It’s not only David Attenborough whose wisdom and experience are making a difference.

Not everyone is younger for longer. There are growing gaps in life expectancy—and healthy life expectancy—between the well-off and educated, and those less fortunate. By 60, graduates are in significantly better health than non-graduates, who are more likely to be beset by chronic diseases. We will need to transform our health systems to ward off obesity and related diseases by switching people to far healthier lifestyles from a young age. Japan’s government has had success in extending the healthy lifespan of its population by more than the average increase in total life expectancy: other governments must follow.

Ageing presents serious challenges, which will only be overcome in two ways. First, a ruthless emphasis on keeping people independent, and preventing illness—not just mending the sick, which is what postwar systems were designed for. Second, a willingness to think of ageing itself as a treatable disease. Biologists are developing a range of pills that may stave off ageing, not by targeting any one problem but the genetic circuits and cells which drive them all. I’m taking one of them myself, as I describe in my book.

It should come as a relief to us, as the planet comes under strain, that birth rates are falling. The only natural resource that’s growing is older people. So let’s realise that they have wisdom, energy and talents that we should be using, to create a different, better world.

Camilla Cavendish is an FT columnist and was formerly David Cameron’s director of policy. She is the author of “Extra Time: Ten Lessons for an Ageing World” (HarperCollins)

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