The future of ageing


  • Social brain

 Among yesterday’s comments James Horn kindly asked me to elaborate on the top lines of my Resolution Foundation speech about ageing.

I argued that the future for social care looks very grim (a point emphasised this morning on the Today programme by Baroness Young from the new Care Quality Commission).  As well as fighting to protect care budgets in the recession I suggested that the growing debate about how our lives will be different after the economic crisis is an opportunity to confront the unjust and damaging way we tend to think about getting old.

Three findings from research into neuroscience and behavioural science might help, giving us clues as to why we have come to have such unhealthy attitudes and reasons why they could change.

Behavioural economics and social psychology tell us that human beings tend to be bad at making judgements over the long term. This means we don’t prepare for old age (for example, saving far too little for our retirement) and we aren’t very good at empathising with older people even though it is a stage we will sooner or later reach. Avoiding being with old people is a way of avoiding having to recognise it will ever happen to us.

As Dan Gilbert shows in Stumbling on Happiness, we are also bad at predicting how change will affect us. We assume that we will be happy for life if we win the lottery and sad for life if we become disabled. In fact, over a relatively short time most people adjust to even major changes, ending up at the same level of contentment as when their life altered. We tend to think old people are just like us except less fit, less attractive and closer to death and that makes us think of being old entirely negatively. In fact, we will adjust to old age and – as long as other things in our life are OK – we are likely to be more content in our seventies than in our thirties.

We underestimate both the brain’s plasticity and the way we are all affected by the circumstances in which we find ourselves. So we think of old age as a linear process of decline instead of a stage in life through which we continue to develop depending in large part on our decisions and the circumstances in which we place ourselves. Experiments with older people undertaking low level cognitive and behavioural therapy have found major impacts on their sense of well-being.

There are many other reasons why we view ageing so negatively; the youth fetish in fashion and the media, and – as a self fulfilling prophesy – the actual conditions in which many vulnerable older people find themselves left by family and society. Many visitors to this country, especially from Asian cultures, are shocked by our attitudes to older people. Applying Avner Offer’s argument in ‘The Challenge of Affluence’ it may be that cultures with a strong tradition of deference to older people protect us from our predispositions to fear ageing and shun the aged. These traditions act as what Offer calls a 'commitment device'  but like other traditions and norms they are eroded by affluence. 

A transformation of social attitudes would involve asserting that one of the characteristics of a good society is that it respects its elders. It might also involve recognising that being a good citizen is not just about respect for people of different race, colour or creed but also for people of different generations. Finally, we might see that personal well-being is impossible if we are dreading what lies before us in the final fifth of our lives.  

It can be frustrating to be asked to speak on a topic, to generate some ideas and then not get another chance to air them. Maybe it’s because I’m getting on myself, but I hope I’ll get more opportunities to develop this thinking. It’s certainly a fundamental issue for society.

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