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
Video 2 - (a)
The following animation, Video 2, presents you with some different statistics about older people living in the UK. Watch carefully, but you do not need to try to remember the exact numbers the video contains – focus on what it tells you about wider patterns in how people experience later life.
Then answer the following questions:
- a.Was there anything that surprised you in this information?
One person who studied these statistics reported, ‘I was surprised that so many families with working mothers depended on grandparents to do childcare. I was also surprised that only two-fifths (40%) of NHS money is spent on older people when they make up two-thirds (66%) of service users. This made me worry that older people were getting less good care than younger people, although there could be other reasons for this.’
Video 2 - (b)
- b.What aspects of later life do these statistics give information about?
Video 2 gives information about: satisfaction with day-to-day activities, ability to influence your own life, and ability to meet your goals; feeling contented or happy most days; and not feeling depressed. It also covers life expectancy and healthy life expectancy, life with a disability and life with a long-term illness, NHS spending on older people, care of grandchildren by grandparents and older people as informal carers.
Video 2 - (c)
- c.To what extent do these statistics seem to support the idea that most people have a Third Age?
The video seems to show that older people have higher levels of satisfaction with their day-to-day lives, control over their lives, being happy and so on than many other age groups. It shows that after the age of 65, both men and women have good health for more than half (57%) of their remaining lifespan. It also shows that many older people provide care and support for others. Taken together, the statistics certainly refute the idea that later life is inevitably a time of decline and despair. This is a key part of the idea of the Third Age. However, these statistics do not tell us whether people are feeling freer to pursue their own interests and goals than when they were younger, which is another part of Laslett’s argument.
Video 2 - (d)
- d.What further information might help you better answer the question about whether most people can expect to have a Third Age?
The video compares currently older people with currently younger people but they do not ask the older people who took part in the survey to compare this stage of life with previous ones. If you asked older people to compare their life now with their earlier life, that might give you some useful information.
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.