Stages of life: rethinking the ageing population

Our ageing population is not an amorphous burden — rather, a demographic with many subsets and...
Our ageing population is not an amorphous burden — rather, a demographic with many subsets and subtleties. Photo: Getty Images
Howdy from Texas. That doesn’t get old. I think I’m going to bring that one right on home with me, along with a few more kilos — my morning jogs are not keeping up with the Texas barbecue calories consumed.

I’ve always believed in throwing oneself into the culture when travelling. As Texas holds on to its traditions — I’m in conservative country here — it’s interesting to see what is changing without people being able to do much about it. Across the country, the United States is ageing — actually, that’s across the world, except in places like India and Africa.

I chatted with a Texan Uber driver. He was made redundant a couple of months ago and was reinventing himself to become an expert in food supply logistics — specialising in getting truck drivers into trucks.

He starts his new role this week and said after Covid, the older truck drivers pretty much said "stuff that, we’re not coming back to work for that pay. We’re done, see ya later."

For every six older people stepping out of the blue-collar workforce, there are only a couple of millennials willing to step in to replace them. The entire food system here relies on trucks and truck drivers. How far away are autonomous trucks? Who knows, but in the meantime, expect food supply upsets.

The Uber driver’s anecdote is backed by data. Here are some statistics sourced from a book I am reading, Stage (Not Age) by Susan Wilner Golden. In 2020, 35% of the US population was over 65; by 2035, people over 65 will outnumber those under 18; and by 2050, 45% of the population will be over 65. There will be 3.2 billion people globally over the age of 50 by the year 2050.

We tend to think of this changing dynamic as a burden — but should we think about ageing and retirement differently? When our average lifespan was in the 60s and 70s, it made sense to retire at 65 — a decade or so of retirement savings would see you through to death with comfort.

Golden proposes a new type of thinking regarding ageing — focusing on stage not age.

A 75-year-old who is still active, even running marathons, will be at a different stage than a 75-year-old with chronic diabetes and other issues. This is logical, yet in our minds we treat them the same — "old!".

The active 75-year-old would be very handy in a business like mine. It is worth noting here that my business partner’s father, Ernie, works for us on a daily basis at the grand young age of 80. As we are swanning around Texas, he is in Dunedin holding down the fort.

Of course, the 75-year-old with chronic illness has different needs, and society also needs to ensure these are met in a way that respects and values the person.

Golden proposes that we think of life as five quarters — with the extra quarter for those who reach the grand old age of 100 — or thereabouts. The fifth quarter can be considered as extra time in a football match, if you like.

The quarter which intrigues me is what she describes as the "renaissance quarter" (roughly ages 55-85) — a time for "repurposing, rejuvenation, renaissance and re-evaluation". This is an age where there is potential for continuous learning. During this age, there is more time available than the hectic family-raising years, and there is more financial security and opportunity for exploration.

If society thinks about the renaissance stage as an opportunity not a burden, what opportunities might we create? Opportunities for different types of growth for people, different types of services.

The over 65s hold the greatest wealth and this is increasing. We tend to innovate and create fashion for the young — why? It’s an ever-decreasing, poorer demographic. That makes me sound cynical, I don’t mean it to. Rather, I am trying to highlight the breaks, opportunities and mindset shift we could adopt in a changing world.

Our ageing population is not an amorphous burden — rather, a demographic with many subsets and subtleties. People who will engage in life in different ways to what we might have seen before — opportunities abound.

 - Anna Campbell is a co-founder of Zestt Wellness, a nutraceutical company. She also holds various directorships.