Why can't we imagine ourselves getting old?

A young woman and an old woman

A girl born in the UK today has a one-in-three chance of reaching 100 and a boy has a one-in-four chance. But can people really comprehend what that means?

The biblical figure Methuselah supposedly lived for 969 years. But old age isn't for everyone as the Who demonstrated in their 1965 hit My Generation with its provocative line "hope I die before I get old".

Nearly a half century later, young Britons are facing - if not the fate of Methuselah - then a life of scarcely believable length.

It's not just the recently born who will live longer. The projections from the Department for Work and Pensions suggest that more than a fifth of women currently aged 40, and about 14% of their male equivalents, will reach their 100th birthday.

Inspirational centenarians

  • Comedian George Burns died at 100
  • Artist Alphaeus Philemon Cole was still active as an artist past the age of 100. Died aged 112
  • Ivy Bean was thought to be the world's oldest Twitter and Facebook user. Died aged 104
  • Narcissus of Jerusalem, Christian patriarch of the city in the 3rd Century was still reportedly going strong at the age of 116
  • Nearly man: Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo led the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 at the age of 96 or 97. He was also blind

Clocking up three figures has previously been regarded as remarkable enough to merit a telegram from the Queen. But soon she or her successor may have to raise the age requirement.

By 2066, there will be half a million centenarians and some even think the DWP figures err on the conservative side. A study in the Lancet last year suggested that half of babies born after 2000 will reach 100.

The practical issue is pensions. "We simply can't look to our grandparents' experience of retirement as a model for our own," says pensions minister Steve Webb. "We will live longer and we will have to save more."

Our ageing populations require a revolution in the way that social and economic policy operates, according to Joseph Coughlin, an age researcher at MIT. "We need a vision that says ageing is not just about the frail," he told the Financial Times last month. "Ageing is about all of us, and how we keep people productive for as long as possible."

The challenge is as much conceptual as practical.

Through the eyes of a centenarian

Evelyn Blackshaw

Evelyn Blackshaw never considered becoming old - let alone living a century.

At 20, her concept of "old" was 24. "When you're young, it's a long while away and you just don't really think about it," she says.

If someone asked in her youthful days if she'd like to make it to 100, she'd have replied: "No thanks! It's nice to be this old at times, but you also start picking up the snags."

Born on 19 July 1911 in Bow, she grew up in East London, marrying Alfred Blackshaw in 1945.

She looks back fondly on her days at Andersons Rubber Company and recalls the time Winston Churchill peered in the shop window.

She keeps her mind and body active through puzzles, reading and dancing - her favourite dance is the quickstep and she prefers "jazzy" songs.

"We have to keep our minds on the route."

And along with dance, she has stayed active by gardening - she fancies Begonias and roses. "And oh, I love bananas."

As Leon Trotsky put it: "Old age is the most unexpected of all the things that happen to a man." Behavioural thinkers believe that most people are incapable of imagining themselves getting old, one reason why people fail to invest sufficiently in a pension.

The theory of "discounting" - delaying payment in return for a bigger financial reward - has been used to explain this.

In one US experiment, researchers put five-year-olds in a room with a marshmallow. The children were told that if it could wait 15 minutes without touching it, they would be offered a second marshmallow. Despite the inducement, the vast majority of the children ate it before the time limit was up.

It underlines the idea that humans distinguish between our present and future selves. "It's been shown that people's identification with themselves diminishes as they look into the future," says Daniel Read, professor of behavioural science at Warwick Business School. "It comes down to not caring about ourselves in the future."

Living longer is one thing, but the quality of the extra years is what counts, he believes. And no-one knows if these extra years will be spent working for longer and being mentally and physically active, or finding oneself frail and bed-ridden.

"We may not be able to expect people to work much longer than they already are," Read warns. "If the productive years remain about the same but the lifespan expands that becomes a major issue for society."

The novelist Martin Amis argued last year that the answer might be "euthanasia booths on every street corner". As he explained at a public Q&A session the swelling ranks of the elderly would not only be a drain on resources for younger generations, but lead to an undignified end to one's life.

The biologist Lewis Wolpert, who wrote about old age in his recent book You're Looking Very Well, dismisses Amis's position.

A young person's view - Amanda Agius, 22

Amanda Agius

Start Quote

I don't want to exceed 50. I'm afraid of ageing, because of the way you look and the fact that you have to depend on people. I want to be able to do things myself”

End Quote Amanda Agius 22-year-old

He says it wasn't until he retired, aged 75, that he first felt old. Indeed our definition of old, advances further up the age range as we do. Now aged 81, he has accepted he counts as old.

"The point about age is that things change," he explains. "The most striking thing is that in the street everyone passes me now - I've slowed down."

He has begun to forget things, names and faces, and Alzheimer's is a real fear. "I do think about death every now and again. It's not terrible being old. But I miss work and being around colleagues and students."

He is sceptical about the latest figures. But if a significant number of the population really do start living past a hundred, it may not be something to celebrate. "I don't think they will be fulfilling lives. Who's going to employ you at 80 or 90?"

He never expected to get old. "As a young man I never gave getting old a moment's thought." But this is no bad thing, he believes. There is no point worrying about ageing when you're young. Best to enjoy your youth and deal with the aches, pains, and memory loss when it happens.

Steve Jones, senior research fellow at University College London, says that in evolutionary terms the old are irrelevant.

Start Quote

I don't like the thought of being old. It's sad - not being able to walk how you should. You sort of start looking a little lifeless - I don't want to struggle”

End Quote Azadeh Eatessami 27-year-old

"The point of evolution is preserving DNA. A chick is the egg's way of making another egg. Once the DNA molecule is passed on, the chick becomes almost irrelevant to the process."

Within the animal kingdom, apart from a few species like elephants, extreme old age is a rarity. Even species we think of as being genetically close to ourselves, like chimpanzees, die young through fighting each other, lack of food or attacks by predators.

But humans are going through scarcely credible advance in longevity. As primitive hunter gatherers, our life expectancy was in the 20s or 30s, Prof Jones guesses.

During Shakespeare's time only one in three children made it to the age of 21. By Charles Darwin's era, the rate had improved to one in two. Now for the first time, there are more people in Britain over 45 than under 45.

"The progress has been astonishing," he notes. For the last 50 or so years life expectancy has been increasing at a rate of six hours a day."

Everyone says it can't last, and yet we keep getting older and older. Who's to say it's going to stop?


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  • rate this

    Comment number 223.

    As a PS, I have 2 large energetic dogs , a large garden full of fruit trees and fruit shrubs - the produce of which needs harvesting and processing every year. I also have a Camper Van and go camping in UK and Europe 4-5 times every year. Lots of walking - lots of exploring and loads of discovering wonderful corners of UK and Europe. Dogs come too.
    Hoorray for being a ''recycled teenager'' !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 222.

    If you keep active and avoid too much alcohol and cigs then you have a better
    chance of reaching a good age.

  • rate this

    Comment number 221.

    In an interview about 20 years ago .. Katherine Hepburn (very much known for calling a spade a shovel...). In her 80's & clearly showing first signs of Parkinsons, she explained she could do EVERYTHING that she could do when she was in her 30's & 40's. It just took her a bit longer..
    At 65, I had life-saving heart surgery, survived serious car-crash & am determined to grow old disgracefully.

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    mike, either i am totally confused or you have misconstrued sue's comment... i think that you are really saying the same thing: that a year is a year!

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    The ideas of some of the youngsters are quite hilarious - apparently they think that being over 50 means you become incapable. I'm 52 today and can't think of a single thing I did as a 20 year old that I couldn't do now. My father is 85 and cycles everywhere, is a CAB advisor. and last summer did a 4 hour Apline walk with me, ascending 2000 fet. Keep fit and healthy, then old age holds no fear.

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    i am a bell ringer - and a member of our tower recently celebrated a very special birthday: fred (who still actively rings - we think that he is the oldest ringer in wales!) reached the age of 95! the best ringers in the county came to ring a quarter peal for him - and promised to return in five years to ring a full peal ofr his centenary!

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    Sue i am afraid you are wrong and the journalists are quite correct n. A comparison of Genesis 7:11 with Genesis 8:3, 4 shows that 150 days amounted to five months. The fact that the Bible also mentions the 10th month and, subsequently, one 40-day period and at least two 7-day time periods as passing during this year, indicates the year was 12 months long.—Ge 8:5, 6, 10, 12-14.

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    I t was Eubie Blake on his 100th birthday (or thereabouts) who said,

    "If I'd known I was going to live this long I'd have taken better care of myself".

    It's come to my notice that Mrs Odicean told a neighbour of ours recently that if she'd known I was was going to live this long she'd have taken less care of me. Fat frump.

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    its ok to say keep yourself healthy ect. but my Aunt drinks very little alcohol has never smoked and kept herself really healthy but is now 98 and her eyesight is going. She can no longer look after herself so has gone into a home where she can't see who she's talking to so is making no new friend, can't see to read or see the telly or do any of the knitting or needlework she used to do What life

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.

    As with most societal groups (Motorists being another prime example) until the over 60s organise themselves into a cohesive power block, they will never get action on issues like employment for older people, pensions and so on. So having lots of older people will be a problem if they aren't able to pull the levels of power better than previous generations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    The biblical figure Methuselah supposedly lived for 969 years"

    ""Except the mistake that these so called "years" were actually measured on a LUNAR calendar of 13 months per year - thus 969 years actually being about 75 years. Nothing special here - except the ignorance of journalism.""

    And you know this how? THe Bible says "years", nothing about lunar calendars!

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    @136 Easy done, ain't it? I misread the sentence in the article. I think I read it how I would have put it myself.
    "Reading what you want to read" is probably an entire topic in its own right. Thanks to all who were gracious in highlighting my clear error, at which I am highly embarrassed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    half a million centenarians by 2066 -
    I hope not me
    Let other people be teased about being born in 1966 and a certain football match

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    Don,t Know about the rest of the world.....''I,m going to live until I die''

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    Rather than worrying that you'll be a useless burden in old age, why not do everything you can while you still have time, to make sure you're not? Stop smoking, eat well, exercise, limit how much and how often you drink alcohol. Is it worth having all the fun of eating rubbish and spending all your spare time in front of the tv if you spend the last 20 years of your life wishing you died young?

  • rate this

    Comment number 208.

    My parents recently celebrated 50 years of marriage. My father has Alzheimer's contacted at the relatively young age of 70. There are many who would dismiss his life as worthless yet you only have to look at the anniversary photographs to see that you may lose your intellectual faculties but you never lose the ability to love. Even if an active old age is denied you still have a life to be lived.

  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    I simply do not believe all these projections that claim we will all live to a grand old age. I suspect the evil hand of the establishment is at play here, trying to con all of us into accepting a later retirement. And even if do live to 100 we will still get old at the same rate, so what's the good news? If I could look (and behave) like a 40 year old at 100 then it would really be good!

  • rate this

    Comment number 206.

    I am interested by the comments about disabilities we [might] develop as we age - a number of people have mentioned arthritis as one in particular. I was diagnosed with severe osteoarthritis in my knee at the age of 35, with no possibility of a knee replacement as I'm too young. I don't let it stop me from doing things and I also don't think it is an inevitability of ageing!

  • rate this

    Comment number 205.

    Growing old is (almost) inevitable. Thankfully growing up is optional.

  • rate this

    Comment number 204.

    Add your comment...Funny isn't it . When it comes to pensions we are all going to live to 100 so we have to accept reductions in pension rates.
    When it comes to health we are all going to die of inactivity by the time we are 60. Our kids are going to be fat little tubbies with a life expectancy of 20 at the most. So we have to forgo pleasures in life because we cannot afford care.


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