How will we live in an older world?
Anne-Marie Guillemard. To answer this question, let’s go back to the idea behind it – ageing. In Europe, Asia, and even Brazil, the age pyramid is changing shape: the proportion of people over 65 is increasing, and the proportion of people over 80 is now significant. The trend continues: children born today will have a good chance of being centenarians.
But when we talk about “ageing” we only see the negative effects and we miss the essential point of the longevity revolution. Life expectancy at the age of 60, which in Western Europe remained virtually unchanged between 1845 and 1945, has increased rapidly since the Second World War. In France it is now 28 years for women and 23 years for men. As such, we have entered a “long life society”.
So, let me rephrase: an older world? No: longer lives. It is not the same thing. But understanding this new reality is not easy. The first challenge is to deconstruct representations, to grasp the promises of this new world instead of panicking about them.
First, longevity is not a disability. It is the opposite: retired people are living longer and longer in good health. The question of loss of autonomy is arising later and later. Second, considering only the social cost of retirees obscures the contribution they can make to society. Finally, the promotion of the “silver economy” contributes to distorting the perspective by reducing seniors to their purchasing power.
What is the basis for a new representation and action strategy?
It will be based mainly on two elements. The first is to consider seniors as a resource, the second is to better take into account the diversity of situations and needs at the same age, which invalidates the pre-eminence of age-based management of populations.
Firstly, longer life expectancy gives older people new resources that we must try to optimise for the benefit of society as a whole. In France in particular, the obsession with ageing and the reduction of the risks and costs that it generates has obscured the contributions made by the progress of longevity.
Experienced employees can be an asset for companies, provided that they know how to maintain their skills. The skills of older people can also be expressed in informal work or voluntary work. They create value for companies and for the country.
The urgent need is not to reform pensions, but to make it attractive and sustainable to prolong working life in order to optimise the new capacities of older people for the benefit of all. This change of outlook and strategy is particularly urgent in France, where the employment rate of 60–64 year olds is the lowest of the OECD countries, at 33% compared to 52% on average and 70% in Sweden. It would call for proactive policies to support and accompany companies to help them offer real and sustainable work prospects to their employees in the second half of their careers.
In Northern Europe, countries that have prolonged working life have pursued upstream policies and invested in employees. It is the forty-somethings who must be targeted if we want to have successful fifty-somethings and active sixty-somethings. Everyone must be offered a future.
Finland has made a considerable effort in lifelong learning. In the 2000s, it set up an “age management” programme for companies and managers, offering advice based on studies. For example, when working conditions or the organisation of work in a workshop or office are improved to make them more suitable for older people, the return on investment can be doubled in terms of work productivity.
You mentioned the need to break with a segmented and fixed conception of life stages and the corresponding policies?
The age-based management of populations is no longer adapted to the new flexible and individualised life paths that a long-living society has brought about. The three-stage life course of the industrial society: training / employment / retirement, has been disrupted by the lengthening of life and the advent of a post-industrial society. The sequences of employment, education, family life and leisure are now combined in no particular order at all ages.
Advancing age has become a continuous process of self-construction and reconstruction through the trials and tribulations encountered, which differ from one individual to another. Therefore, in order to meet their needs, it is necessary to take into account not the age of the individuals but the diversity of their backgrounds. A 50-year-old senior citizen in late parenthood does not have the same vision of retirement as someone whose children are already married.
It is the forty-somethings who must be targeted if we want to have successful fifty-somethings and active sixty-somethings. Everyone must be offered a future.
In 1945, when pension schemes were introduced in many developed countries, everyone had a roughly identical life course. The main variable was the length of education. But everyone moved at the same pace, with relatively standard chronological ages.
Today, we must move towards a chosen retirement, with a reasonable minimum age and incentives to continue. Finland and Sweden have abolished any legal cut-off age. The Finns have increased the employment rate of 60–64 year olds while keeping the possibility of leaving at 61 or 62.
Does the same logic apply to old age, where the issue of autonomy can catch up with us?
Yes: specific needs then arise. But some people are aware of them, others are not. And when they appear, it is not at the same age. Finally, they may call for very different responses in terms of accommodation and associated services.
Here again, it is difficult to respond to the diversity of situations. Policies create monolithic rights that open up at this or that age. Individuals focus on needs that will only concern them for a few years of their lives – the average stay in an old people’s home is no more than three years. All this creates rigidity and inadequate responses when what is needed is flexibility and the ability to choose from baskets of services.
On what basis should new policies be organised?
We need to think of them as life cycle policies, based on several elements. The first is to put an end to policies segmented by age, by organising modulations according to needs, possibilities, and aspirations.
The second element is to favour a preventive rather than a curative approach. Regarding the employability of “young” seniors, and the fragility of the elderly (isolation, malnutrition), it is better to act upstream to be effective. The lengthening of life means that we must give priority to prevention over cure.
The third element is the range of choices. The more we aspire to be able to govern our lives, the more we need to open up life choices. This has a particular impact on residential life, which should be made easier and more fluid. Well-designed policies would make it possible to free up savings that are currently locked up in property assets for fear of dependency, and to direct them towards productive investments. Opening up choices for our seniors would benefit everyone.