Are you old? Should there be a new term used?

active elderly bikersShould today’s 70-year-old American be considered “old”?  How do you define that term these days?  Statistically, your average 70-year-old has just a 2% chance of dying within a year.  The estimated upper limit of average life expectancy is now 97, and a rapidly growing number of 70-year-olds will live past age 100. 

Perhaps more importantly, today’s 70-year-olds are in much better shape than their grandparents were at the same age. In most developed countries, healthy life expectancy from age 50 is growing faster than life expectancy itself, suggesting that the period of diminished vigor and ill health towards the end of life is being compressed.

A recent series of articles in the Economist magazine suggest that we need a new term for people age 65 to 85, who are generally hale and hearty, capable of knowledge-based work on an equal footing with 25-year-olds, and who are increasingly being shunted out of the workforce as if they were invalids or, well, “old.”  Indeed, the article suggests that if this cohort does NOT start returning to the workplace, the impact could be catastrophic on society as a whole.

Globally, a combination of falling birth rates and increasing lifespans threaten to increase the “old-age dependency ratio” (the ratio of retired people to active workers) from 13% in 2015 to 38% by the end of the century.  That, in turn, could lead to huge fiscal strains on our pension and Social Security systems because fewer workers would be paying for retirement benefits for more retirees.

What to do?  The article notes that, in the past, whenever a new life stage was identified, deep societal and economic changes followed in the wake.  A new focus on childhood in the 19th century paved the way for child-protection laws, mandatory schooling, and a host of new businesses—from toymaking to children’s books.  When teenagers were first singled out as a distinct demographic in America in the 1940s, they turned out to be a great source of economic value thanks to their willingness to work part-time and spend their income freely on new goods and services.

The next most logical shift in our thinking could be separating out people age 65-80 from the traditional “old” and “retiree” category—and calling them something different.  (The article doesn’t offer a suggested name. Do you have one? Note it in a Comment below and we’ll send you a prize for our favorite suggestion.)  They might continue at their desks or downshift into the kinds of part-time work that emphasize knowledge and relationships.  Many who experienced mandatory retirement retired to the so-called “gig economy.”  Though gigging is usually seen as something that young people do, in many ways it suits older people better. They are often content to work part-time, are not looking for career progression, and are better able to deal with the precariousness of such jobs. The article notes that a quarter of drivers for Uber are over 50.

More broadly, a quarter of all Americans who say they work in the “sharing economy” are over 55.  Businesses that offer on-demand lawyers, accountants, teachers and personal assistants are finding plenty of recruits among older people.

Still others are preparing for life beyond traditional retirement by becoming entrepreneurs. In America, people between 55 and 65 are now 65% more likely to start companies than those between 20 and 34.  In Britain, 40% of new founders are over 50 and almost 60% of the over-70s who are still working are self-employed.

One large economic contribution made by older people that does not show up in the numbers is unpaid work. In Italy and Portugal, around one grandmother in five provides daily care for a grandchild, estimates Karen Glaser from King’s College London. That frees parents to go out to work, saving huge sums on child care

All these changes represent societal adjustments to a reality that isn’t well-publicized: that the traditional retirement age increasingly makes no sense in terms of health, longevity and the ability to contribute.  The sooner we find a label for healthy people age 65 to 80, the faster we can start recognizing their potential to contribute. So, maybe you’re not so old after all?

Evelyn Zohlen on Linkedin
Evelyn Zohlen
“My own life-changing transition inspired me to start Inspired Financial so that I could help other women and their families navigate their difficult life transitions and emerge confident, financially secure and empowered to deal with future life events.”

6 Comments

Tony Ceballos

I think of myself as growing older but I don’t think of myself as OLD. You can call me a senior with 75 years of experience hoping to grow old one day in the distant future. For now, Tony works, Mr. Ceballos if you don’t know me that well.

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Evelyn Zohlen

I like that—“a senior with 75 years of experience hoping to grow old one day”—Tony!

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XO, Mary McGlasson

I’m surprised as to your thoughts on this topic! But thinking of a term to replace “old”, I think “Not Quite Dead Yet” has a nice ring to it!
As an old person, I’m aware of my limitations, but think of my age only as position on my timeline. In In no way does it affect my basic philosophy of living, as is the case of all the healthy, old, educated people I know. Here is what we strive to do, and who, not what, we want to be.

Don’t put yourself in a box. Live without limits.
Every time you categorize yourself, you pigeonhole yourself. It’s a self-imposed limitation, robbing you of infinite potential. You don’t have to accept being categorized by others, when you choose to just BE?
When we are asked to put a label on what we think and believe we have no answer, only our own evolving truth. We don’t conform to labels. We refuse to be pigeon-holed because we are constantly seeking and evolving. What are some benefits of not categorizing ourselves?
 The ability to draw information/experience from various diverse sources
 The ability to form our own conclusions
 The ability to relate to everyone and everything
 Having an unbiased perspective
 Building our own views, beliefs, and theories
 Gaining a sense of power and genuine confidence
 Not being easily manipulated
 Eliminating limitations

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Evelyn Zohlen

Great perspective, Mary! I agree that labels can be limiting and wanted the blog to encourage our readers to think beyond the categories that they (or society) may be applying to themselves. Thanks for your input!

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