When Does Old Age Begin?

Defining when one phase of life ends and another begins

Posted Sep 03, 2012

The next time you see a rainbow in the sky, have a good look at it. Wordsworth’s heart lifted up when he saw one, but then he did wear oversized blouses and liked his sister well beyond what would be considered psychiatrically healthy. For the rest of us, we see a coloured arc, consisting of bands of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Okay, some people dispute the indigo-violet distinction, but no matter – the essential point is that we see bands of colours. Now look at the bands more closely. You will see that the colours are not neatly divided one from the other, but instead, each colour band merges into the next. Thus, you do not have a band of pure red then a band of pure orange, but a band of gradually changing shades of red that almost imperceptibly change to shades of orange. Although we see bands of colour, the boundaries between them are far from easy to define.

This is a neat illustration of the problems facing us when we try to decide when ‘old age’ begins. We all have a good idea of what a typical older person looks like, just as we have a similarly good idea of what constitutes a typical middle aged or young adult. But how do we decide on the age when one age group ends and another starts? The problem facing us is just like the colours in the rainbow – there is no clear, easily applied demarcation line. Instead, any division we make is essentially arbitrary. Thus, if we say that at age x years, old age begins, we are making an arbitrary judgement. Why? Because not everyone at age x+1 will look and act old any more than everyone at age x-1 will look and act middle-aged. The change from one age group to another is far subtler and less clearly defined.

This argument generally draws two responses. The first is that it gives solace to those individuals who say that they don’t want to be labelled as ‘old’ as it’s an arbitrary term. The second is that here is further proof that given a simple question, social scientists are incapable of giving a straight answer.  In fact, the point being made is subtler than this, and has led researchers into a great deal of complex research. We will examine some aspects of this in later blogs. For the moment, I want to look a little further at how researchers settled on an age for the onset of old age.

For the sake of having to draw a line somewhere, researchers have often chosen 60 or 65.  Now I imagine that quite a few of you when you read this will have thought that old age seems to go pretty much hand in hand with retirement. Generally, people retire in their early sixties, and this change from paid employment to enforced leisure marks them as entering old age. To an extent, this is true, but it is pertinent to remember that paid retirement is, in historical terms, a new concept. The idea of pensioned retirement for the masses did not start until the late 19th century, first in Germany and then in most of the rest of the industrialised world. A state pension might seem like an exercise in munificence, but in fact it began life as a rather cynical manoeuvre. When pensions were introduced, by the age of 65, a high proportion of the work force had died and life expectancy being what it was in those days, a tidy number of retired workers would die within a few years of accepting their gold watch. Thus, the governments of the day could collect pension contributions from all, secure in the knowledge that they would only have to pay a tiny fraction of them back as, bluntly speaking, most of the contributors would be dead before they could collect.  

Conventiently for governments, by the time pensions for old age were being introduced for people in their sixties, researchers had labelled old age as officially starting in a person’s sixties. In reality, several researchers had a hand in making this decision, but one name stands out more than most – this is the Belgian mathematician and statistician Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874). In 1836, his major work was published, with the snappy title of Sur l’homme et le developpement de ses faculties, ou, Essai de physique sociale. Using statistical analysis of population data (at the time a new-fangled notion), Quetelet demonstrated that nearly all people were unlikely to live past the Biblical three score years and ten. The key sentence (in translation) was this: from ‘sixty to sixty-five years of age viability loses much of its energy, that is to say, the probability of life then becomes very small’ (Quetelet, 1836, p. 178). This, we now know, is codswallop, but at the time the idea stuck. The fact that a large proportion of the population was in the ground before they reached their early seventies did seem to indicate that about the age of sixty, a final stage of life ‘must’ be reached. And thus, thanks to a Belgian statistician (and, it should be added, other academics who agreed with him), we became stuck with the idea that sixty was when old age was reached.

Incidentally, Quetelet’s other major contribution to human happiness was the body mass index.

We now know that Quetelet was plain wrong about age viability losing its energy. In Quetelet’s day, the reason so few people reached seventy was because a very large proportion of people died in infancy or childhood. As standards of public sanitation and medical care grew, far more people lived into adulthood, and a lot more people lived past seventy. The full explanation is best left for another blog. However, there is a deliciously ironic twist in this tale. Quetelet was right about losing viability in his case: when he was 59, he suffered a debilitating stroke, and although he lived on well into his seventies, his work output was permanently diminished.

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