The Elder Interview
Dr George Leeson, Director of Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, on Why Age is Just a Number
Dr George Leeson is Director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, a multi-disciplinary research facility within the University of Oxford. With a particular focus on demography – statistics that illustrate the changing structure of human populations – the Institute researches the implications of the world’s increasingly ageing populations. We talked to Dr Leeson about humanity’s achievements in longevity, why we need to redefine what old age is – and the challenges we must all rise to in order to create a sustainable society for the future.
Why the institute was set up and what work do you do here?
The Institute was set up in 1997 by Professor Sarah Harper, Professor of Gerontology at the University of Oxford, who wanted to look at population ageing from a multi-disciplinary perspective.
In academic life, while everyone is very positive about multidisciplinary work, it is actually very difficult to put into practice. Things are changing, but certainly 20 years ago it was a very innovative idea.
We are now a cross-disciplinary institute covering anthropology, statistics, demography, health economics, sociology, social policy and philosophy. That broad range gives the institute an inspiring dynamism. I’m a numbers person, having trained as a mathematician before moving into demography, for example – but I work closely with a philosopher and an anthropologist.
There’s a very complex process between the different demographic components – of mortality, fertility and migration – and that is at the core of our work here. It is about the age-structural change that has been going on and is still going on around the world; asking what is causing it and what are the consequences?
Ageing is very much part of the so-called demographic transition – a transition from high levels of mortality (death rates) and fertility (childbearing) to low levels, and this has been in process in Europe for about 200 years, so our populations have been ageing for a long time. By that, we mean people living longer but also having fewer children, so there are more and more older people who comprise a larger and larger part of our population. Soon half the population of Europe will be age over 50 for example. It’s been a long, slow process, and toward the latter decades of the 20th-century population ageing became a big issue.
I remember working in the 1980s at the University of Copenhagen with the Danish Bureau of National Statistics. At that time, it was very much ‘a truth’ that death rates in later life, defined then as those over 50, were a constant.
But what was actually happening there, as in other countries, was that it was slowly declining year-on-year. Few people were picking up on it, and it was almost as if when people woke up to it they said, “Where have all these older people come from?”
We look into a future that is very different but seems to stay anchored in the past in our behaviour and attitudes to ageing.
Is population ageing a corollary of ‘progress’?
The demographic transition – and therefore population ageing – began in Europe in the 1800s, when housing conditions, health and sanitation were all improving – driving down mortality. At that time families were having seven or eight children, partly as a survival strategy so that when they got older, there would be some left to look after them and their land.
As mortality began to decline, it took a generation or two for people to realise that actually, they didn’t need to have a lot of children anymore to make sure two of them survived. At this time too, industrialisation began to offer factory work away from the land, and education became compulsory. Suddenly the children who had been a resource on their parent’s little plot of land now became a burden.
Child bearing then began to decline, but there was a time lag because people had to adjust to new social conditions. In the meantime, the population in Europe exploded, because people were both having lots of children and death rates were declining. After WWII European childbearing levels came down roughly to “replacement” – which is just over two children per woman since when it has dipped again, so in many eastern and southern European countries childbearing is only just over one child per woman.
This has been a long, ongoing process and industrial and economic development and progress were part of it. Of course, now it has become the norm to have very few children, and we see that norm spreading – as it has been for the past 30 years – across the globe.
A lot of people are shocked to hear that the lowest levels of childbearing are not actually in Europe, but in South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong.
In fact, the only part of the world where many countries are still experiencing very high levels of fertility, relatively speaking, is sub-Saharan Africa and that’s why we also have a research programme looking at the link between education, fertility and the environment here.
This is a success story, though, let’s not forget that. Mankind has always wanted as many people to live for as long as possible – and we’ve achieved it.
Is ‘top heavy population’ a trend that is set to continue?
Our populations are still ageing, but they are not becoming top heavy – they’ve gone from a ‘pyramid’ to a ‘lemon shape’ and are now heading toward a ‘skyscraper.’ It’s a dramatic and interesting structural change, and we’ve never experienced anything like it.
People have never lived as long as they are living now, and they can expect to live longer. For the last 160 years or so, maximum life expectancy around the world has been increasing by 2.5 years every decade – a short amount of time for such an increase.
There has been some discussion in the press recently on how we’ve reached the plateau of human life span, and it’s 115 years – which seems like a ridiculous thing to say when we’ve already had several people living beyond that, and the oldest known human died last century at 122.
Take a look at The Oxford Institute of Population Ageing’s twitter to discover more about the implications of population change.
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What are the implications of this demographic structural change?
Everything in society will be affected by population ageing. However long you think you’re going to live, you’re probably going to be pitching it significantly lower than that which you are likely to achieve.
As an individual that has implications; you may have a life plan, which may include retiring at 55 and enjoying 20 years of retirement. But when you actually get to 95 you may well think, “Why did I not do anything for the last 20 years?!”
We have to remember that these additional years aren’t all going to be spent lying in a bed in a care home, incontinent and unable to communicate – things that are still, in many people’s minds, inextricably attached to old age.
It’s taken a long time to wake up to what is coming and to ask how do we adjust in order to create a sustainable society in light of this dramatic change in our population structure? We look into a future that is very different, but we seem to stay anchored in the past in our behaviour and attitudes to ageing.
Has the idea of “old age” got to change to move toward a solution?
One could argue that the idea of ‘old age’ came out of introducing the concept of retirement. Once you move people out of economic productivity because of their age by introducing pensions you’ve defined a new group of people in your population who are not allowed to contribute, i.e., old people become a ‘burden.’
When the state pension was introduced here at the beginning of the 20th-century life expectancy was only around 50, not many people reached 70, and those that did didn’t survive for another 30 years. A hundred years later we’ve gone backward in pension age and overwhelmingly forward in how long we are living.
The maths of state pensions doesn’t add up, and again that is another way we need to change our mindset. Unless artificial intelligence and new technology generate huge wealth that is distributed between us all, then there is no way that state pensions can provide us with the standard of living we’ve come to expect.
We need to think about what we mean by old age – perhaps as being that very, very last period of our lives, when we do need support and help. For the rest of our lives, we’re not old – we’re mature, we’re adult, but we’re not “old” in the sense that that word is still interpreted.
This is ultimately a success story, though – let’s not forget that. Mankind has always wanted as many people to live for as long as possible, and we’ve achieved it.
What can research like that of the institute contribute in terms of solutions?
One of our aims here is that we want to inform and be informed by policy – so everything we do is hopefully generating knowledge, and providing tools for everyone, from individuals to communities and workplaces – but we don’t just stop there.
We do a lot of government work around the world, not just in the UK. We don’t go as far as to say to the government that it needs to have this or that policy, but we do say ‘this is what is happening, and your policies will have the following consequences.’ Hopefully, then, they can join the dots themselves.
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