Older people are more than ‘food for worms’

Why this week’s revelation that there will soon be more over-65s than under-fives provoked another bout of hysterical anxiety about ageing.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Such is the strength of cultural miserabilism today that even the most smile-inducing good news stories can swiftly be turned into doom-laden tales about the terrible future humanity faces.

This week, a report published by the US Census Bureau revealed something properly startling: some time in the next 10 years the global population of over-65s will outnumber the global population of under-fives for the first time ever (1). Such a monumental demographic change is a consequence of decades of development and scientific advance, which have allowed people to live longer, healthier, wealthier lives, and to live – in the real meaning of that word: to travel, to have new experiences, to chill out – even after they stop working.

Yet rather than being treated as good news, as evidence of the leaps forward made by mankind, the US Census Bureau’s prediction was treated at best as ‘worrying news’, and at worst as ‘bad news’. The growth of the older population will have ‘formidable consequences’ and pose ‘widespread challenges’, we were told. There was talk of an ageing ‘tipping point’, ‘burdens’ on social services, and the need to ‘sound the alarm’ about how the presence on Earth of all these old folks might provoke ‘intergenerational conflict’ (2).

In one fell swoop, we went from the revelation that mankind has successfully extended life beyond birth-work-death to warnings of burdensome old people sucking up all of our health and social resources and possibly launching a war of attrition against the young. Nothing better captures the downbeat nature of public life today, the dominance of misanthropy and miserabilism over every other outlook, than the treatment of our ageing population as a ‘timebomb’ waiting to explode or a ‘conflict’ waiting to occur (3). The new fear of the old springs from today’s tendency to treat social policy challenges, which an ageing population no doubt is, as insurmountable demographic nightmares – and more fundamentally from our inability to give meaning to human life and see it as something more than a bovine, biological thing.

An ageing population is an unadulterated good thing. Throughout history we have sought to extend human life in order that people – and humanity more broadly – might realise their potential. But it was only in the modern era, with the development of antibiotics, clean water, better nutrition and vastly more medical and social breakthroughs, that we finally enabled the vast majority of humanity to live beyond their 40s (indeed, ‘life begins at 40’ these days).

In Britain in 1837, at the start of the Victoria era, people could expect to live into their late 30s; by the end of the Victorian era, in 1901, life expectancy had risen to 48. Throughout the twentieth century life expectancy in the UK rose and rose, reaching a new record level in 2008: men now live to an average of 77.2 years and women to 81.5 years (4). A professor at Imperial College, London, predicts that one million British people currently in their 30s will live to see their one-hundredth birthday, possibly increasing the number of centenarians from the current figure of 10,000 to 1.2million by 2074 (5).

Increased life expectancy is explicitly linked with human development and advance; it is the clearest signifier there is that people’s living conditions and circumstances are improving. That is why, even though there have been great improvements in life expectancy in the developing world too in recent decades (it has risen from an average of 40 in 1950 to 65 today), still poorer countries lag behind in the life-expectancy stakes. So where in 2008 the overall life expectancy at birth was 82.07 in Japan, 80.87 in France, 80.63 in Sweden and 79.78 in Israel, it was 40.9 in Mozambique, 38.44 in Zambia, 37.63 in Angola and, lowest of all, 32.23 in Swaziland (6). A combination of a lack of development and an absence of medical infrastructure means life remains brutish and short for many people in poorer countries. There are no doubt communities and families in sub-Saharan Africa who would love to have the ‘problem’ of an ageing population, and more importantly the things that bring such a ‘problem’ about: developed societies, sanitation, the victory of medicine over disease.

Yet in Western societies, increased life expectancy and our ageing populations are continually treated as harbingers of doom rather than success stories. Because the US Census Bureau’s prediction that over-65s will soon outnumber under-fives is based, not only on the fact that people in the West are living longer but also on the fact that fertility rates here are falling, there is widespread concern that demography is getting all screwed up and soon there won’t be enough young people to look after all the old people. What ought to be treated as a discrete and eminently fixable social-policy issue – the need to make generous changes to the pensions system, the healthcare system and society itself in order to accommodate older workers and more retirees – is transformed instead into a nightmarish scenario that threatens to unleash instability, conflict and increased poverty.

Almost everyone now refers to our ageing population as a ‘timebomb’; this idea that the ‘old problem’ will one day explode and ruin everything for the rest of us speaks profoundly to the lack of policy foresight or ambitious preparedness for the social challenges of an ageing population (7). Elsewhere older people are seen simply as burdens on the health and social security system (one commentator says more and more old people will ‘wreak havoc on Social Security’) or burdens on the planet itself. Under headlines such as ‘Are Grandma and Grandpa bad for the environment?’, eco-leaning commentators bemoan the fact that senior citizens ‘are less likely than anyone else to believe that global warming is a manmade phenomenon’, and warn that as a result ‘[young people] will suffer the environmental consequences [of older people’s behaviour]’ (8).

Meanwhile, as the recession deepens, there is widespread handwringing over whether the UK government should abolish the enforceable retirement age of 65: sensible people argue that it should abolish it, and give people freedom of choice over how and when they work, while others warn that if old people continue working in an already pressed jobs market then there could be more ‘intergenerational conflict’ (9). It used to be immigrants who were said to be ‘stealing our jobs’; now it’s the elderly. Increasingly, older people are seen as little more than a fiscal and health burden. They’re no longer thought of as wise people whose experience of life counts for something important but as individuals with ‘outdated and irrelevant’ views: they’re grumpy, a bit racist, hell they don’t even believe in global warming (10). The treatment of older people as burdensome and irrelevant speaks to Western society’s increasing estrangement from, and its fear and suspicion of, the ageing process.

Some now even argue against trying to extend human life any further. One health charity says humanity’s ‘scientific attack on the ageing process’, which might in the future help people to live to ‘120, 140 or 160’, could have potentially ‘severe consequences’ for society (11). An American writer says old people should ‘stop functioning as a fiscal burden’ and ‘start serving as a nutritional resource for worms’ – ouch (12). Esteemed academics attack the project of ‘radically extended life expectancy’ as something creepily sci-fi, and little more than the technological pursuit of cynical biotechnology companies (13). Yet just as clean water, to take one breakthrough, contributed to the twentieth-century leap in life expectancy from 48 to 80 in the UK, why shouldn’t biotech – the technological use of biological matter – contribute to a future leap from 80 to 120?

Not surprisingly, today’s downbeat attitude to ageing has trickled down into popular culture: a recent novel depicted a world in which old people have enslaved young people, forcing them to produce all the stuff and medicines that the grey population require, until the youth decide to rise up against their wrinkled oppressors. This provides an insight into what drives today’s tyranny of youth, society’s tendency to worship the young, fresh-faced and brand new over anything wise or traditional: not a desire to experiment or kick against the old ways of doing things, but a profound fear of the future and of change. Our fetishisation of youth is a way of erecting a barrier against the future, keeping everything in an innocent childish state in order to avoid having a grown-up debate about our potentially grown-up futures.

Today’s ambivalent or outright hostile attitude towards the ageing process really reveals our inability to give meaning to human existence today. Rather than seeing older people as an integral part of some social fabric – many of them still work, look after grandchildren, do voluntary work in communities, or watch over their neighbours – we see them as a drain on society’s apparently limited resources. Rather than seeing older people as individuals with hopes and aspirations like the rest of us, we see them increasingly as little more than bovine creatures with a long list of burdensome medical needs. Many now ask: ‘Who wants to live to be old when you’ll only be sick and slow and incapacitated?’ – revealing our inability to see the profounder side to life behind any health problems individuals might have to endure. The drive to extend life is looked upon as sinister technological wizardry and being a senior citizen is seen as an uphill battle against inevitable disease – because, beyond technology and biology, we can see little meaning in human life. Ageing humanity has come to be seen as a problem as a result of a broader cultural confusion about humanity’s standing and purpose today.

It is not older people who are problematic and anti-social – it is today’s cultural outlook, which treats even success as a problem and human beings as a burden. It is a screwed-up society which sees older generations as little more than a future nutritional resource for worms.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Ken McLaughlin argued that getting older is better than it’s ever been. Ann Furedi ridiculed the idea that old people need safe sex advice. Phil Mullan noted how politicians chased the ‘grey vote’ while revealing their contempt for old people; he also noted that there is no need for a pensions crisis. Or read more at spiked issue Ageing.

(1) Population of older people set to surpass number of children, report finds, Guardian, 20 July 2009

(2) Population of older people set to surpass number of children, report finds, Guardian, 20 July 2009

(3) The Imaginary Time Bomb: Why an Ageing Population is not a Social Problem, Phil Mullan, IB Tauris, 2000

(4) National interim life tables and life expectancy at birth, Office for National Statistics, 2009

(5) Over a million in Britain could live beyond 100, RxPG News, 12 February 2006

(6) See the CIA World Factbook

(7) The Imaginary Time Bomb: Why an Ageing Population is not a Social Problem, Phil Mullan, IB Tauris, 2000

(8) Is Grandpa Bad for the Environment?, Slate, 9 September 2008

(9) End of retirement age signalled, BBC News, 13 July 2009

(10) Is Grandpa Bad for the Environment?, Slate, 9 September 2008

(11) Creating very old people: are we ready for the consequences?, Healthful Life Project, 2008

(12) Why America’s elderly are so spoiled, Slate, 10 December 2003

(13) Biotechnology, bioethics and anti-ageing interventions, Trends in Biotechnology, May 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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