Most people fear ageing for its decline and diminishment. The reality, as revealed by a new study, run jointly by National Geographic and the AARP, is that older people are a lot happier than most people think – including what their younger selves might have predicted. The usual stereotype of miserable, lonely old folk twiddling their thumbs after they lose the purpose of work and their general relevance to a money and status-driven society is turned on its head by the data. Even the Grim Reaper seems to lose his sting. The older you get the less you fear death. (Someone should tell the younger guys desperately trying to delay its inevitability.) And the more you value the finer things in life. Under age 40, the focus is on mental health and independence. By 80, it’s almost all about love. The sub-text to a report about older people is that it’s the middle-aged, pulled apart between needy kids, greedy work, ailing parents, and the nightly news who need help.
Prepare for Life’s 4 Quarters – Early
This report offers a welcome reframing of older age. It could be used to help update people’s perception of the second half of life – from kids (who become ageist as early as age three) to the 20 and 30-year-olds who are looking at, but not yet planning for, 60-year working lives. Today’s long retirements relative to working lives are likely to shrink as ever-greater swathes of the population age. Helping people prepare and pace for longer lives will require education – physical, financial and relational. Today’s elders, suggest this report, may be showing the way.
Ample savings and a good understanding of compound interest will be needed to cover long life living costs. This survey shows that a lot of the under 40 population have no clear view of where their retirement income will come from. It also reveals that older people prioritise fitness and nutrition far more than their juniors do. The earlier one makes fitness a part of adulthood, the greater you can stretch your healthspan to meet your lifespan. Parents, employers and policymakers have a role to play in introducing the idea of 100-year lives and urging people to save consistently, exercise regularly, and eat well, right from their very first piggy bank. As many of the older people surveyed do.
Retirement itself is an evolving concept. There is much talk of people having to work longer, which is sinking in to our psyches. The majority of the ‘not-yet-retired’ surveyed don’t believe they will be retiring when they want.Yet the pandemic saw a mass move towards retirement and early retirement. The report also shows that most current retirees retired earlier than they expected, while a small proportion of hardy workers (14%) never want to retire at all.
More Support for the Middle
Life is toughest in the 30s and 40s, and this survey brings more grist to the millstone of the middle. The research on happiness shows a clear U-curve, with the trough in the decades where people juggle many of life’s big tasks in a relatively concentrated couple of decades. Having children, making money, constructing careers, and caring for parents and communities can build into an unexpectedly taxing cocktail of competing and irreconcilable demands. This study confirms the point yet again. It shows those under 40 with mental health as their top health priority. No wonder. The dearth of care and support options for this age group is an ongoing, particularly American challenge. No wonder birthrates are tumbling. While attention on the second half of life is hugely welcome, it may come as a surprise to hear that many of those needing support are actually in their first halves.
Embrace Death as Part of Life
Generally, respondents were not overly concerned with how long they will live. The longer they had already lived, the less they care about longevity. “Death isn’t to be feared,” summarises the report “but to be prepared for,” as most of those surveyed have done – financially, legally and relationally. The report points to a strong vote for medical assistance in dying, particularly among the affluent and educated (65%). Those who disagree (18%) most strongly unsurprisingly do so on religious grounds. The tides are turning on this issue as ever more countries introduce some form of access to assisted dying. The list now includes Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland, parts of the US and Australia. (Colombia and Italy have legalised but not yet implemented). Much noise is made about delaying death, but this survey says people would rather ‘add life to their years than years to their life.’ Which brings us to the next point.
‘Good health’ is a Relative Concept
Survey participants define good health as being independent, mobile and mentally strong. Interestingly, physical decline didn’t affect self-reporting about the state of their health. Even what most of us regard as seriously bad news, like heart disease, diabetes, or cancer didn’t shift ‘healthy’ self-images, as long as treatment and support enabled the achievement of the fundamental priorities – staying sane and independent. The more the medical establishment reads this survey and learns to prioritise these goals, the better they will serve patients as they age. Pushing more medical procedures, particularly if they compromise future quality of life, is very clearly not what older people are calling for. Respondents were clear in their hope for a medical system more accommodating and respectful of mature end-of-life choices and desires.
Design Homes For All Ages & Stages
The report underlines the clear priority our elders (and likely our future selves) put on family and relationships. It also underlines how ferociously people would prefer to live in their own homes or with family rather than in institutions of any kind – no matter how sunny. The era of age-segregated retirement communities may be coming to an end. But good alternatives aren’t yet readily available. Some 95% of America’s housing stock is not built with its ageing population in mind. The National Institute of Home Builders has recently been promoting the idea of ‘universal design’ which integrates the needs of people of every age into every aspect of a home – from accessible entrances and doorknobs to bigger bathrooms. They may also want to start building for a clear wish from this survey for inter-generational housing which allows people to live with family when they are older. “Joy and purpose from family increases with age,” peaking in the over-80s.
It’s heartening to see research that explores the astonishing diversity and complexity of the multiple phases of what is indiscriminately referred to as ‘adulthood.’ This research shows just how much – and how unexpectedly – priorities and perceptions evolve across the latter half of our lives. Looking at life more holistically should lead to better understanding and managing the different needs across our multiplying decades. The reality revealed by this report may calm some of our myriad fears around ageing. Happiness awaits. Spread the word.