Who wouldn’t want an extra few decades of life? Quite a few of us, as it happens.
When the Queensland University of Technology asked the question a few years back, 5 per cent of those surveyed nominated “boredom” as a reason why they wouldn’t want to live longer. Another 34 per cent nominated more years of ill health. Another 16 per cent said they couldn’t afford it. Twelve per cent said they might outlive their family and friends.
Naturally, there’s a word for the instinctive fear of extra years of life. It’s “gerontologiphobia”, defined by University of Michigan gerontologist Richard Miller as an “irrational public predisposition to regard research on specific late-life diseases as marvellous but to regard research on aging, and thus on all late-life diseases together, as a public menace bound to produce a world filled with nonproductive, chronically disabled, unhappy senior citizens”.
It’s not entirely irrational if you consider what got us to where we are today. At the turn of the the 1900s a newborn Australian male could expect to live to only 48. By 1960 it was 68. Much of the difference was brought about by success in reducing the likelihood of quick deaths: things such as infections, road accidents and heart attacks. Which left long, lingering deaths from things such as cancer.
But when treasury secretary Ken Henry examined lifespans as part of the Henry Tax Review for the Rudd government he found that in recent times the extra years of life hadn’t been extending our years of infirmity, they had been pushing those years out. We’d been getting extra good years and no extra unpleasant ones.
It ought to have been news to celebrate, but, as is the way with slow-moving good news, it wasn’t much written about and didn’t become widely understood.
And now there’s an update, and the news is even better; in a way gerontologiphobiacs might have thought possible.
According to the Institute of Health and Welfare, between 2003 and 2015, life expectancy for males climbed 2.6 years. But their disability-free life expectancy climbed by even more: by 3.9 years. Newborn males not only got an extra 2.6 years of life, they got an 1.3 years less of life with disability.
Newborn females got an extra 1.7 years of life and an extra 3 years of life disability-free. These days the longer we live, the less time we can expect to spend infirmed.
The implications are enormous. One is that we needn’t fear interventions designed to make our lives longer. Apart from boredom (for those who are easily bored), longer lives are likely to be more rather than less pleasant.
Another is that most of us will be able to comfortably work longer.
In July the pension age climbs from 65 to 65 and six months. It’ll climb by a further six months every two years until it reaches 67 in 2024. It’ll be the first increase since the pension was introduced in 1909 – when men were lucky to live to 50.
Labor’s Kevin Rudd made the change pointing out that unless the age was lifted Australians would face an unprecedented 30 years in retirement. Realising they’ll soon face even longer, the Coalition’s Joe Hockey announced an extension in his first budget in 2014. From 2024 the pension age would keep increasing, by six months every two years, until it reached 70 in 2035.
Labor opposed it as an attack on the frail aged, and despite endorsements from the founding director of Australian Seniors, the Commission of Audit and the Productivity Commission it’s still stuck in the Senate.
Scott Morrison might have another go in his second budget next week.
If we keep getting older, and keep getting healthier as we age, it’ll have to happen. Old will become mainstream, and far less frightening.
Peter Martin is economics editor of The Age.
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