4 The Third Age and population changes
To find out whether experiencing a Third Age is common nowadays, researchers need to look at lots of people’s experiences. However, they cannot just ask people ‘are you experiencing the Third Age?’ because most people would not know what that meant. They could ask them about their experiences of ageing and whether they feel they are in a period of self-fulfilment, but this would probably involve quite a lengthy explanation and lead to quite a long conversation, which would be very expensive and time-consuming to do with thousands of people. For large-scale studies, researchers generally need to ask quite straightforward and factual questions or to look at data about how long people are living and their health status. This does not exactly answer the question ‘is having a Third Age now common?’ but it may give clues that help to answer this question.
Activity 5 Statistics about ageing
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Of course statistics like these are about the population as a whole – they do not tell you about a particular individual. If the average 65-year-old woman can expect 11.6 more years of good health, some are likely to experience only one more year while others some 30 more years. And of course not everyone below the age of 65 experiences good health or is without a disability. However, the statistics you have seen here do seem to support Laslett’s argument that most people nowadays can expect to experience many years of healthy and productive life after retirement. What the statistics here do not really tell you is whether this Third Age is also a time of self-fulfilment and freedom for most people.
A key academic skill is reading and thinking critically. This means not accepting things at face value but constantly asking yourself questions such as ‘is this really the case?’, ‘are there other possible explanations?’ or ‘how does this match up to what I already know?’ This is what you were beginning to do when you used the statistics to test out Laslett’s argument.
It is especially important to keep thinking critically when numbers and statistics appear, because many people do not feel fully comfortable with numbers, so they tend to skim over them, rather than reading them with full attention. This can mean that they do not really think about whether the numbers actually show what the author claims they do. People also tend to find numbers and percentages very convincing and persuasive, regardless of whether they are correct or not. For example, ‘63% of people living in this area are aged over 40’ sounds more authoritative and factual than ‘most people living in this area are aged over 40’. Working confidently and critically with numbers is also a very valuable skill in many employment contexts. In the next section, you are therefore going to apply and develop your critical reading skills with numbers and words to a short extract from an article in a local newspaper.