Old Age No Longer Starts at 70

How has social thought evolved regarding the current increase in life expectancy? Taking into account the views of the founder of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing and other researchers, we'll try to answer this question.
Old Age No Longer Starts at 70
Fátima Servián Franco

Written and verified by the psychologist Fátima Servián Franco.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Are we a society that discriminates against older people? What vision do we have of old age? The founder of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, Sarah Harper, claims that Western society does, indeed discriminate against old age.

On the other hand, today’s third age is longer, and the deterioration of our capacities has become slower. Therefore, we reach a higher age with a greater degree of autonomy. In this sense, Sarah Harper states that old age no longer means being 70, but it actually occurs when we become dependents.

The United Nations estimates that, between now and 2050, the proportion of the population aged 65 or over will increase in all countries. The number of people aged 60 and over in developing countries is already double of that in developed ones. The UN expects that ratio to reach three to one in 2030 and four to one in 2050.

“Getting old is like climbing a mountain; you get a little out of breath, but the view is much better!”

-Ingmar Bergman-

Seniors having fun as an example of the fourth age

Old age no longer starts at 70

A group of researchers from the CSIC debated replacing the statistical barrier of 65 years with a mobile threshold linked to life expectancy. However, for statistical convenience, for more than a century people have worked with the idea that old age begins at 65.  That’s because this threshold coincided with retirement age.

Nevertheless, nowadays, hope and quality of life don’t necessarily diminish at the age of 65. Indeed, today’s 65-year-olds are nothing like those of past times.

Antonio Abellán is a researcher at the CSIC Population Department and a member of the Research Group on Aging. He claims that 65-70 year olds today are like the 55-60 year olds of previous generations.

Both he and other CSIC researchers have decided to open a debate on the need to redefine the concept of old or, at least, the age at which old age begins.

One of the proposals they put forward is that the start of old age is marked by a sliding threshold linked to the remaining life expectancy. Therefore, being old doesn’t depend on the years that appear on the identity card but on those that one has left to live.

“The social position of those classified as old is not the consequence of their physical or mental aging, but because of their position in relation to the labor market and the relationships and structures that they determine. The taxonomic space of old age isn’t biological nor natural, but is rather the result of social construction that has practical and legal aspects as well as imaginary and representational ones.”

-Delgado, 2003-

Seniors cycling through the countryside

Aging societies: myths, challenges, and opportunities

Demographers and sociologists point out that, before adopting any political measure related to the threshold of old age, more research is needed on how the last fifteen years prior to death are lived.

These studies would help determine when the disability process begins in many elderly people. Furthermore, if that disability is being delayed, as some American studies point out.

From the reports published periodically by the Observatory for the Elderly in Spain, it can be deduced that between 70 and 80 percent of the current elderly (people over 65 years of age) are autonomous and functionally independent.

In the same way that some define old age with a chronological criterion, and say that it begins at age 65 with retirement, other scholars mark its beginning with a functional criterion. They claim that the elderly person is old when they’re mentally and socially incapable or limited.

Research conducted in 2009 by the Center for Sociological Research (CIS) showed that 28.7  percent of the Spanish population considers old age commences after 70 years. On the other hand, 25.3 percent believe it starts at 65, and 17.3 percent believe that being old doesn’t depend on age.

In this sense, a sociocultural change in the vision of society in relation to aging is lacking. Because the world is getting older than before, yet being old isn’t the same as before.

“The first forty years of our life give the text; the next thirty furnish the commentary upon it…”

-Arthur Schopenhauer-

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Arnay, J., Marrero, J., & Fernández, I. (2013). Educación y envejecimiento: el envejecimiento constructivo. INFORMACIO PSICOLOGICA, (104), 57-71.

  • Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas. (2009). Barómetro 2009. Estudio 2801. Madrid: CIS.

  • Delgado, M. (2003). La construcción social de la vejez. Jano, 12-14.

  • IMSERSO -CSIC. (2009). Un perfil de las personas mayores en España 2009. Madrid: Portal Mayores.

  • Keeling, S. (2006). Ageing societies: myths, challenges and opportunities. Australasian Journal on Ageing25(4), 223-223.

  • Pinazo, S. (2005). Estereotipos de las personas mayores ¿qué significa ser mayor? Mitos y Realidades de las Personas Mayores (pp. 7-22). Bilbao: Hartu-Emanak

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.