Is 75 the new 65? Wealthy countries need to rethink what it means to be old

In 1950, men and women at age 65 could expect to live about 11 years more on average.

Today, that number has gone up to 17, and the United Nations forecasts that it will increase by about five more years by the end of the century.

One consequence of the increase in life expectancy is that the proportion of the population above age 65 has increased, too. In policy analyses and in the media, increases in these proportions are frequently taken to mean that the population will keep getting older. This is often interpreted as warning of a forthcoming crisis.

As researchers who study aging, we believe that it’s better to think about older people not in terms of their chronological ages, but in terms of their remaining life expectancy.

In our study, published on Feb. 26, we explored the implications of this alternative view for assessing the likely future of population aging. We found that, using this new perspective, population aging in high-income countries will likely come to an end shortly after the middle of the century.

Age inflation

Sixty-five-year-olds today are not like 65-year-olds in 1900. Today’s older people on average live longer, are healthier and score higher on cognitive tests.

There are two different ways that demographers can think about older people. They can define older people by the number of years they’ve already lived, or they can define older people based on how many more years they are expected to live. In our research, we subscribe to the second view.

We think about aging the way economists think about price inflation. Say US$75 today would buy the same amount as $65 in the past. In essence, $75 is the new $65, because $75 today and $65 in the past had the same purchasing power.

When we say that 75 is the new 65, we mean something similar – that 75-year-olds now have the same remaining life expectancy as 65-year-olds in the past. Adjusting age for changes in remaining life expectancy is called adjustment for “age inflation.” It’s just like adjusting the value of the dollar for changes in purchasing power.

Measuring future aging

In our study, we explored the future of population aging, measured with and without age inflation.

We wanted to understand whether population aging will come to an end in the foreseeable future, particularly in wealthier countries, where public concern about population aging is most acute. We looked at countries with a gross national income per capita at or above $4,000, including Barbados, Croatia, the U.S., China, Russia and South Africa.

Using the U.N.‘s forecasts of population sizes and age structures, a computer program generated 1,000 random possible future populations for these countries.