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Growing Old

30 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 05 April 2012

As Baby Boomers start turning 65, many countries are quite suddenly growing old. The trend means
big changes for the economy, healthcare, social life..and a challenge to the assumptions by which we have
lived life for the past two centuries. Peter Day explains why.

  • Peter Day's Webcomment:

    About this programme by Peter Day

    What a run the Baby Boomers have had through the past 60 years.

    And what an arrogant lot we have proved to be: scornful of our elders, impatient to inherit the places of power, wealth and privilege, presumptive and immodest.

    We were like a great ocean liner, parting the waves as we crossed the ocean of life.

    Things happened for us, as though it had been intended from the beginning.

    Sex was revolutionised by the Pill, music was revolutionised by our generation of Baby Boomer bands, national service was abolished so that we could do our own adolescence without the intervention of a sergeant major

    University education was vastly expanded, we got hugely more prosperous; we travelled, and we got impatient and were rewarded for it.

    Our generation pushed aside the cadre of people who might have expected to inherit the top jobs in their 50s. We Baby Boomers got the jobs in our late 40s.

    At the time it looked like a breath of fresh air, except that we did the jobs no better (and often worse) than the timeservers would have done, but with fancier ideas than they would have had … and more disastrous ones.

    And then the blessed Baby Boomers were either offered early retirement and left well compensated, or they got to 60 or 65 and found that new age discrimination laws had enabled them to go on and on.

    Viagra kicked in, too: another Baby Boomer blessing.

    But now we are facing the consequences of the Baby Boom. Big problems, and in typical Baby Boomer fashion, seemingly unique ones.

    Certainly, I am told, nothing quite like the way our world is growing old has ever happened before … excepting the Black Death and the aftermath of war.

    It is a phenomenon that has taken even the actuaries by surprise ... the profession that was supposed to adopt the long view, monitor demographic trends and alert the pension fund providers to discrepancies between assets and liabilities.

    It was not their only job, but it was an important one, and they appear to have taken their eye off the ball … or to have seen the future and been unable to alert the companies they worked for to the expensive implications of the way we are living longer … and longer.

    Longevity has been extending for decades now.

    First it was a sort of statistical phenomenon; decreasing infant mortality because of better hospital treatment in childbirth pushed up life expectation in a remarkable way.

    And even after the infant mortality improvement slowed down (as it had to do eventually), Western world life expectancy went on getting longer.

    Better medicines, healthcare, self awareness of health? Nobody quite knows, but it happened. Longevity continued to increase, defying what you might have expected. No wonder the actuaries were wrong footed.

    The statistics went like this: over our lifetime, if you lived for a decade you added one year or two to your eventual life expectancy.

    Newcastle University is seeking to create a world centre of excellence out of its cross-disciplinary concentration on ageing and well-being.

    The University’s Associate Dean for Ageing, Professor Tom Kirkwood (a former BBC R4 Reith Lecturer), has a dramatic way of describing the longevity phenomenon, which he says, shows little sign of slackening even now.

    Tom Kirkwood says that every day you live you add five hours to your life expectancy. Five extra hours, every day. Effectively, we are living a 29-hour day.

    An astonishing way of describing something which is having a huge influence on the way we live now.

    This is unexpected and rather wonderful. But it poses potentially big problems that politicians and policy makers do not seem to have bothered to start thinking about much. (Companies have done, and it is one of the reasons why final salary pension schemes have almost completely disappeared over the past 10 years.)

    Let us cross fingers and hope that longer life is accompanied by fairly decent health. However healthy, at some stage an increasing number of older people will need care, maybe intensive care.

    And that is going to be expensive, if healthcare is to continue to be done in the traditional way. Maybe too expensive for our current economic system to bear.

    It is what happens when an increasing number of older, nonworking people have to support (in some way or other) by a smaller national proportion of younger, working age people. Unless, that is, we re-define quite radically our idea of "working age".

    This cost problem of advanced age is accentuated in several big and prosperous countries by another seemingly unrelated phenomenon: the lack of babies.

    Young people are not having babies in places such as Germany, Italy, and Japan. China’s decades of one child policy (now being eased) has a similar impact there. As a result, the population of these countries will soon begin to shrink.

    It is already happening in Japan. I went there the other month to see what lessons there are for the rest of us, and it will be the subject of another In Business at the end of the series.

    Britain and the USA are less affected than many other countries by this old-plus-shrinking-population trend, because of immigration. But ageing is going to colour our future, in a significant way.

    For decades now, Baby Boomers have behaved as though we owned the world. Now, at last, the bills are coming due.

  • Contributors to this programme:

    Professor Thomas Kirkwood
    Associate Dean for Ageing, Institute for Ageing and Health, Newcastle University

    Professor Mark Blythe
    Professor of Interdisciplinary Design, Northumbria University

    George Magnus
    Senior Economic Advisor, UBS and author The Age of Aging

    Christopher Daykin
    Trustee Director, Now Pensions

    Erik Sande
    General Manager, Philips Home Monitoring

    David McCullough
    Chief Executive, WRVS



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