The 15th April 2017 saw the end of the final living link to the nineteenth century. Emma Morano died at her home in northern Italy aged 117, one of the five longest lived people in recorded history. Emma was born in November 1899 and is believed to have been the last survivor from the nineteenth Century. She survived two world wars and more than 90 Italian governments. Emma is succeeded by Violet Brown, a 117-year-old Jamaican woman. None has yet to achieve the longest recorded life, which is still held by Jeanne Calment of France, who died in 1997 aged 122 years, 164 days – the longest documented human lifespan.
In the eighteenth century, there were probably 10 centenarians in the whole of Europe, now there are 14,500 just in the UK, and by the end of the century it is projected that there will be close to 1.5 million. There are already over half a million over 90, and 850 people in the UK over 105. Yet we are still achieving these very long lives without the radical intervention that science can bring, and the recent discussion in Nature has again highlighted the view that there is currently no reason to suppose that there is a maximum life span.
In recognition of 500 years since Martin Luther asserted his reformations, unleashing unforeseen change across Europe, I was invited to assert a reformation of the reimagining of the concept of age, ageing and old age for the twenty-first century. I argued not only that our past and present conceptualisations of ageing and old age are at odds with contemporary reality, but that our entire lives – particularly those in advanced economies – are now being played out in a world which is in itself ageing. To grow old in a society which is old is very different from growing old in a society which is young.
At the turn of the millennium, Europe already had more people over 60 than under 15. Latin America will have more old than young by 2040, and Asia by 2050. Within 3 years, there will be more people on the planet over 65 than under 5 years old. Within the next decade, half the population of western Europe will be aged over 50. In terms of our own longevity, in 1850 half the people in Britain were dead before they reached their mid-40s – now half the population can expect to make it into their 80s. This shift from predominantly young to predominantly older populations has both broad macro-economic implications as well as important financial consequences for both the public and private sector.
Different regions of the world are experiencing the age shift in different ways and magnitudes. In addition, each is also currently challenged by a particular set of demographic dynamics which are controlling the pace and form of the change. Advanced economies are well along the way of the age structural shift, which has been in progression for a couple of hundred years since the start of the demographic transition in Europe in the mid-eighteenth century. Alongside the general mass ageing of their populations, with a steady increase in both the mean and median ages and in average life expectancy, they are also facing the challenge of extreme low fertility, and low mortality rates amongst the oldest old. While the first is changing their worker to dependent ratio, the second is questioning the ability to care for the large numbers in and approaching extreme frailty.
SOURCE: Harper, Sarah. “The Reformation of Age and Ageing.” Journal of Population Ageing, [First online:
Link to website [Open access @ 11 August 2017]
Produced by the librarians at the Brotherhood of St Laurence in Melbourne, Australia