WALTER MURDOCH LECTURE Aging: Everybody’s Future Dr Don Edgar 1991 The usual line on ageing is one of negativism, fear, stereotyping and alarmist projections based on wrong interpretations of what an ageing population implies. I want in this lecture to re-orient your thinking about the process of ageing.
The theme suggested itself to me because the Walter Murdoch, after whom this University and this annual lecture are named, was a living example of an elder who lived an active life to the very end, one who never filled nor accepted the denigrated role of an 'old' person.
The theme seemed apt also because Australia is following the demographic pattern of all western societies. It is ageing slowly, and we are likely to see a revolution against ageism as 'the generation shift' follows on from 'the gender shift' in society (Young do Schuller,1990). The advent of a fit old age for the masses is likely to be a major resource for society, but only if we see a major change from negative stereotypes which force our elders onto the scrapheap.
At a recent conference on ageing, I heard a wonderful old lady tell a story about the famous actress Katherine Hepburn. She was being introduced to an audience as "My dear and old, old, old friend, Katherine Hepburn". In her own inimitable fashion, Hepburn rose to her feet and said 'Thank you so much, but please, only one 'old' will do!".
In another story which again illustrates the self-deprecating and negative image our elders have of themselves, a very old grandmother is being shown her great grandchild shortly after his birth. The newborn babe is lying there naked, kicking away happily. The old lady asks "Is it a girl or a boy?". The child's mother says "Oh, grandma, your eyesight is getting bad". Grandma replies, "No dear, it's not my eyesight, it's my memory".
My interest in taking this theme has also peaked in recent months by a coincidence of ageing jolts that bring the topic very close to home. My daughters have just turned 27 and 29; my
wife 'caught up' with me at 54;1 read Simone de Beauvoirs wonderfully existentialist and life-assertive book on Old Age; and my in-laws have their 60th wedding anniversary in a week or so. It all makes me feel a bit old. The balding forehead has been with me for decades but I still wonder who the bald old man is I see reflected in the shop windows as I walk across city streets. The consolation is that as each year goes by, I become more and more 'chronologically gifted'.
External views versus existential ageing That illustrates my first point, one which must be remembered whenever people or polices try to categorise 'the aged'. There is both an external, socially-imposed notion of 'the aged' as seen from without. And there is an internal, existential discovery of aging which is an inevitable part of being-in-the-world. The latter rests heavily upon the wellness of our body, on our continued sense that we are in control of ourselves and can choose our course of action. It also rests strongly upon that internal sense of control, a sense that develops out of our life experience and the positive or negative feedback we get from others. Our sense of self is socially constructed, so our internal experience of growing older is linked closely to the constraints on older people as seen from without.
I would want to argue that, existentially, this is no different from any other stage of the life cycle. People like to generalise, to group and categorise, to label for the sake of convenience and to assert their own power over others. We like to say children can't read, can't be analytical, can't and shouldn't have sexual feelings. We label youth and put them into arbitrary settings called 'schools' where prescription rather than choice determines what is studied, where dependence on rules rather than responsible decision-making, control rather than autonomy, hold sway and structure their lives.
Small wonder children have fantasy lives and act out the Hobgoblins or Superman or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or their own world of children's dirty rhymes and folklore games. Small wonder our teenagers rebel or put such energy into their world apart, of rock, drugs, peer group interaction. The modern reality is that they are dependent on parents, yet earn part-time money. They can't marry until the late 20s, but they lead adult sexual lives from the early teens. They can't find jobs, but we expect them to work their butts off in schools and colleges to make Australia 'the Clever Country'. The labels and categories no longer fit.
So then we have 'adulthood', another increasingly meaningless term that denies the continuity and complexity of life itself. It used to be marked by rites of passage - the initiation ritual scarring, the adult bravery test, leaving home to attend college, getting a paid job, getting laid, getting married and leaving the parental home. Now some people go through nearly all of this and still behave like children; others pass some but not all of the adult markers; others delay a few for a whole lifetime but are still seen as 'adult'.
What are we to do then with 'old age'? If our population is ageing, is this cause for alarm? Who will these older people be? Will they be a grey-haired version of the 'Me-Generation' or a new breed which could turn Australian society on its balding head?
First, the elderly of the turn of the century, will be us. It will be me. I will be 64 in the year 2001 and 74 in the year 2011. Now there's some cause for hope! Because inside myself I am still a rabid humanist, a searcher for the good in others, an urger for effort a critic of prejudice and structured disadvantage, an enthusiast for innovation and excellence, a sucker for love, trust and personal generosity.
It will be you, and you don't look too ancient, doleful or decrepit to me. The fact that you are here to listen to a lecture on ageing gives fair warning that you're not going to sit back and let ageing simply happen!
In fact it will be the baby boom generation and their 80-90 year old parents who will be the new aged. Australia has plenty of lead time in which to plan for change, for these future 'pensioners' who will be ourselves. We as active citizens will be constructing the circumstances of an older Australia in which overall dependency ratio costs will be balanced out by decreased public expenditures on the smaller cohorts of children and the fruits of years of economic and philosophical emphasis on self- sufficiency and individual choice of lifestyle.
Ageing equals success, not doom That brings me to my second main point - the demographic shift towards an older population is a sign of success and hope, not a cause for alarm. As Susan McDaniel points out for Canada (1988), ageing at a societal level is an indication of success, not failure. For each of
us as individuals, so is ageing at a personal level, particularly as Mark Twain says, when one considers the alternative.
Too often people assume increased longevity in a demographic sense is due to improved medical care. Rather, it is an "unexpected consequence of planned parenthood. The average age of the population has increased because of declining numbers of babies and young children. With fewer new entrants into the population, the centre point of the population shifts up; it becomes less bottom heavy (or young). There has been some minor increase in average (Canadian) age due to increased life expectancy, but it has not been a significant factor in population ageing." In Australia, "since 1961, an additional 5 years has been added to the life of an average Australian. This is due to continued declines in infant mortality and since 1971 to reduced mortality in the upperage groups." In fact, the Australian population 'has been growing older for most of the last 100 years. In 1890 the median age was 20 years compared with 31.9 years in 1990 ... throughout the 1970s and 1980s the ageing process has accelerated ...'. By 1990, 22.1 per cent of the population was aged 0-14 years (cf. 30.2% in 1961) and the proportion aged over 65 years had increased from 8.5% to 11.2%.
Certainly the baby boom generation will swell the ranks of the elderly in the early 21st century. As the Baby Boom generations move up the age pyramid, and if birth rates continue to decline, Australia's population will age rapidly, with median age rising from 31.9 years in 1990 to between 37.8 and 44.1 years in 2031. The population of working age (15 to 64) is projected to decline from 66.9% in 1990 to between 60.7% and 64.7% in 2031. The number of people aged 80 plus will more than double from 0.4 million in 1990 to between 1 and 1. 5 million, so there will be extra demands on health and welfare programs. But we are still (compared to Sweden, Finland, the UK or West Germany) a relatively young nation, and different assumptions could make this a positive future, not a bleak one. It is easy to forget that the 'oldest' countries usually have the highest standards of living, the best medical care, the greatest industrial development and technology. An older population is a consequence of societal success and affluence. Fertility control reflects control over agriculture to ensure a food surplus; it reflects control over technology enabling industrial development; it reflects control over disease and premature death and over that fatalism which condemns so many people to a bare existence without choice.
So let us celebrate the ageing of our society and recognise that it is an extension of life opportunities, a maintenance of tremendous skills, resources, the wisdom of experience, a spreading pool of competence and human help to be drawn upon with enthusiasm.
Reconceptualising Ageing We need to reconceptualise ageing so that different labels and expectations come to be attached and so different policy initiatives may follow.
The first step is to reconceptualise the significance of 'elders' within family life. Popular images of the family are powerful because there are usually a few elements of the stereotype that resonate in our own experience. We are told the extended family is dead. We don't personally have Granny living with us, so, yes that must be right. But we forget that our parents did not live with their relatives either; we forget that we visit every now and, then, do the shopping or gardening when needed, get on the phone constantly to check how things are going and report in for a bit of friendly advice.
We hear alarmist stories about an ageing society increasing the dependency ratio. But we forget that the increased participation of women in the labour force has acted to reduce the dependency ratio and is likely to continue to do so. We hear that divorce rates are high, families breaking up, kids torn apart by family conflict. True, yet over 65 per cent of current Australian marriages will last a lifetime; divorce unlike death means the separated parent is still a presence and his/her relatives are often still loved and a source of support to our children.
We know that family life today is very busy, hurried, both parents working outside the home, struggling to manage child care, shopping, household work and earning a living at the same time. People live in distant suburbs, often too far from kin, from old parents who may have been in a position to help.
But we hear less often the figures that show how centrally involved our elders are in supporting family life. In Hal Kendig's 1983 study of the aged, it was found that older people are more likely to be providers than recipients of many kinds of support. Many grown offspring, especially separated sons, return to live with their older parents. The aged are twice as likely to give money to their families as the reverse. Close to half the Sydney sample of
old people had given practical help to others, from child-minding to transport assistance. A quarter of older people serve as volunteers and serve longer hours in the social services. Add to that the huge intergenerational exchange via inheritance and the fierce resistance to inheritance tax and you see the notion of aged 'dependency' in a very different light. Nor is it just an exchange of help; it is a strong emotional bond which has been described as alt historically new form -the modified extended family, based on 'intimacy at a distance’.
In the Institute's recent follow-up of our national Family Formation study we found vast quantities of reciprocal intergenerational help. This is a national sample of people we first interviewed in 1981 and again last year, in their family formation years, the Baby Boom generation itself.
On the moral obligation to assist elders, 75% agree they should give financial help if needed, and 43% would let ageing parents live with them if they so wished. When asked what sorts of help they as adult offspring now provide for their parents and in-laws, we found 89% provide emotional support, 72% do things around the house, 74% give care during illness, 53% organise shopping and bills and 21 % give direct financial assistance.
But the flow came also from the elders to the young. 76% mind the grandchildren, 76% had given emotional support at a time of crisis, 61 % cared when others were sick, 38% helped with renovating. Financial flows are strong from elders to their families too: 40% for major purchases, 27% for tertiary education, 32% the deposit for a house or flat, 14% money for travel and 12% for bond money.
Just who is dependent on whom?
Moreover, researchers have found that with increasing age, the net transfer of resources to the young in the family increases.
We must not forget those other non-economic supports our elders provide for families. Indeed they are the pivot for much of the continuity of family culture, the link between past and present, 'essential for the mental health and stability of the nation'.
Carolyn Roeenthal and her colleagues in Toronto have a telling typology of the roles older people in family structure. There are six broad roles: the 'kinkeeper' who words to keep family members in touch with one another; the ‘financial advise', giving advice on investments; the 'placement officer’, helping family members find jobs or start businesses; the ambassador, representing the family at funerals of old family friends; and the ‘head of the family', making major decisions that other family members accept. The extremes would be the 'Godfather' and one could develop a negative reversal of these roles, but the point is clear. Old people are not useless, not roleless, not even underevalued in most families. They play a lively and powerful part in building and maintaining a shared culture that gives meaning to people's lives across the generations.
Moreover, when we hear about the greater longevity of women we may assume an aging Australia will mean a feminised ghetto of old women, either lonely and grieving or delighted to be free of the burden of the domineering old man. In truth, with better life expectancy for all, more couples will survive together into old age than ever before. They will live separately from their grown children, preferring 'intimacy at a distance' and the freedom to live as they wish while still giving and receiving social support.
Even when it comes to ill health, over 60 per cent of the over 65 population have no on their functional ability and about 30% report only some minor activity restriction.
Thus what we face is not some decrepit, costly, whining 'new class without function', not a ‘generation inutile' struggling to find a purpose or use in modem society. We find ourselves a little older. We find the best educated, best fed, best housed, the healthiest generation of Australians ever to have reached the sixth decile and rearing to go. But what we also face is a system riddled with outmoded structures, outmoded work regulations, outmoded retirement and superannuation provisions, inadequate systems of life-long community-based family support systems, and a media industry totally archaic in its social understanding, stuck in the cult of youth and pushing an image of ‘the aged’ which denies their status as elders whose resources can and should be drawn
Creating a reciprocally caring society Let me finish by describing the sort of caring, active, productive and healthy society that Australia as it 'ages' has the potential to become.
What we need are clearer intergenerational structures and cooperative programmes which will focus on the 'dignity of exchange', in which the obvious ability of most individuals to contribute is acknowledged as an integral part of the individual's receipt of needed services.
Our elders are not all happily enfolded in the bosom of large accepting families. With death, divorce, poverty, lower birth rates, not all will have healthy partners into old age, grandchildren to love, offspring who continue to care. But they could be drawn into new social roles as resource persons for early childhood, as mentors for youth, as wise elders for the community at large. The volunteer grandparent is a new role for those too distant from their own families, an older person and a younger family can adopt one another. For the new ACTF early childhood TV programme Lift Off, we are developing an outreach programme to draw on the resources of the active elderly and youth to help parents and child carers in the task of making those early years stimulating and enjoyable. 'Friends of Lift Off' will be grandparents and other elders who can help read to/listen to children read; can work with them to grow ‘Beverley’ flower pots, using their own love of and experience of gardening; or can help extend the nutrition/health/ cookery activities that will be part of the 'Wackadoo Café’ segments of the Lift Off programme.
Though the desire for independent living is widespread among our elders, the 'psychological hardiness', the sense of control, challenge and commitment which are necessary to survive and continue to grow are not equally present in every person (Seedsman, 1988). Good support structures are needed to develop better coping mechanisms, and new challenges such as those provided by USA or Gray Panthers or the sort of Teaching Learning Communities which bring elders, with their crafts and their caring, into the public schools, need to be created and extended (Edgar, 1989).
The dangers with a prevailing philosophy of individualism are, first, that it ignores the crucial inter-dependence of groups and individuals within any society and, second, that for those who don't have the resources to back up that inner sense of control, there is no excuse for 'failure' because it's not society's fault, it is your own. Combined with a narrow philosophy of utilitarianism, where only the 'useful' is 'good', our cultural creation of ageing becomes either a psychological scrapheap or a frenetic scramble to prove we are still fit, active and able to 'contribute'.
Some balance is required. We do need community structures that respect and make it possible to draw upon the wisdom, resources and experience of our elders. But they don't all have to be busy beavers in volunteer organisations, setting up cake stalls, playing bowls, painting, golfing, making jewellery, studying middle-East history.
We need a new vision of productive ageing that recognises the enormous contribution already being made via family support and cultural maintenance. We need a society that offers hope and structures varied opportunities for its elders both to contribute to community life and for personal growth. Above all we need an existential activism as opposed to a fatalistic 'bad faith' which blames others or merely accepts ageing as decline that is inevitable.
Characterising the `Senior Boom' In fact, if I can sum up with several points to the future, things will not be so bad.
As the baby boom reaches old age and creates the 'senior boom', we need to keep in mind that: They will be better educated, healthier, wealthier, better housed and more selfsufficient than any previous generation of the old. More of the future elderly will be members of four- and five-generation families, with wide networks of potential support, but this will be complicated by the effects of divorce, remarriage, gay and lesbian partnerships and increasing numbers of nevermarried persons who reach an advanced age. Better education and employment income may be countered to some extent by the larger number of women in part-time jobs and small private businesses not covered by pensions or superannuation. Prolonged life expectancy also prolongs our relationships to others - spouse, parents, offspring, friends. More parents and children will thus share critical adult life experiences - work, parenthood, retirement and widowhood. More adult children are and will be involved in caring for frail parents and grandparents. So far from the myth that families used to care better, we face a future of greater caring. Women now can expect to spend more years caring for an aged parent than for a dependent child. Will this be true also for men?
As vertical links that cross generational lines expand and our social networks survive along with us, we will see a much more complex set of family identities and interactions than hitherto. The parenting role gets extended into grand parenthood.
With childbirth concentrated on fewer years, there is an increasing uniformity in childhood experiences and child-parent relationships. Thus siblings closer in age who think of themselves as peers may be more likely to share care-giving tasks than to expect the eldest child or the unmarried sister to care for the aged.
Smaller family size also means greater emotional investment, more intensive ties between children and their parents. This may well increase the sense of reciprocal obligation and responsibility because family ties, as opposed to friendship link remain central to support and the sense of belonging-in-the-world.
The greater longevity of women will mean the world of the very old will be a world of women. Since women more than men turn to intergenerational relationships and friends for help and support, they may well form new female systems to sustain them in old age.
We should not forget, however, that longevity also makes marriage a greater longterm commitment than in the past. Whereas the average length was 28 years before one spouse died (at the end of the last century) it is now over 43 years. Only about 5% of couples (then and now) survive to their golden anniversary, but small wonder divorce and remarriage are reshaping the future life of the old. Women survive singlehood more resourcefully than men; men lose their family networks because loss of contact with children usually reduces his own contact with grand-parents. Many will devote lots of effort to building new stepfamilies, only to find they split up too.
Male involvement across generations may thus weaken and their children's sense of responsibility towards men whom they barely know may well decrease. Will the mother-daughter relationship become more important as the mainstay of family cohesion? And how will these changes affect the development of social policies regarding the care of frail elders?'
On the down side of this equation is the triple burden on the 'woman in the middle. In spite of greater labour force participation by women, they still carry the major load for household work and child care and the 'superwoman squeeze' is being increasingly resented. There is little reason to expect that men will take over more of the aged caring role but exhausted women now turning more and more to community agencies and other family members ant being told more, not less, of the caring should be a
private rather than public responsibility. This policy bind has to be faced; we can't have it both ways and expect all women to earn an income as well as carry the burden of care. Family obligations thus need some reassertion so the younger generations no longer assume parents owe them; but so too is needed a reassertion that care is a public obligation as well and cannot be completely privatised. On the evidence families are already doing their share of caring for their elders. I'm less sure governments are. Opportunities to participate in society must be extended into old age. Early retirement, but more especially compulsory retirement, is an absurd way to go. A Clever Country needs wisdom, not just cleverdickery. As retirement time moves closer to 20% of adult life, we have to realise that formal retirement does not end the need for involvement in the larger society. We have to develop new inter-generational linkages that go beyond immediate family ties and maintain society-wide that 'dignity of exchange' l spoke of earlier. Much of this should involve new workplace arrangements, retraining, job sharing, part time, etc. A 'gliding out' plan of phased retirement is a nicer way to go than being suddenly dumped. Databanks of retiree skills could ease the transition from full to part time work to retirement. The outmoded divisions between education for the young, employment for the middle aged, retirement for the old, must be rethought as we move towards the Third Age (Lazlett, 1989). Temporary retirement for the young family man may be a more sensible way to go.
Varied career trajectories would help break down the rigidity and stereotyping of age classification in our society. Men as well as women could then better integrate their work and family lives and society as a whole would be better served.
It is not at all clear that modern economies have the ability to create such work alternatives and still maintain productivity growth. Better leave provisions in Sweden have not led to higher productivity. But why the growth fetish anyway? Why not people growth as an alternative? Why not quality of life and a caring society as goals instead of the frenetic pace of work followed by an idle scrapheap for the aged as more humane approaches to a longer and more meaningful life?
Above all, societal attitudes must change. The meaning of 'productivity' must be redefined to include more than employment. A more humanising approach is to ask how can we develop and use our human potential in old age as part of a productive society. The vitality of the older population must be recognised out of a need to involve their skills and wisdom, through both paid and unpaid positions, In enriching our society. Then we might move beyond the current artificially framed policy debate about young and old competing for resources; beyond the 'new ageism' and reduce the dependency, both real and perceived, of older persons. The generations are inevitably inter-dependent across the life span, and the sooner we recognise that, the more innovative and constructive will be our policies and programmes for intergenerational exchange.