Opinion: When I'm 64...

By the 2030s, there are large parts of New Zealand where more than 30 per cent of the population will be 65 or older

Paul Spoonley

Forty years ago, the Queen sent about a 100 letters per week to acknowledge Britons who had reached the age of 100. She now employs more people because the numbers currently run at between 700 and 800 per week – and are set to increase significantly in the future.

New Zealand, like the UK, is now beginning to see the arrival of the post-war baby boom population reaching their sixties – and living much longer. Demographers talk about numerical ageing – the arrival of many more into the 65-plus age groups, and structural ageing – the fact that the proportion of the New Zealand population over 65 will grow from 13 per cent to 21 per cent by 2031.

We know this is coming. It is not going to be surprise, as we know the numbers of over 65s will double from 600,000 at the 2013 census to more than a one million in a little over a decade. The real question is, are we ready for what is an unprecedented change to the demographic composition of this country?

One of the issues is that there has been a lot of focus on the cost of an ageing population, whether it is how to fund a growing superannuation bill ($30 billion per year by 2030), or the increasing costs of various forms of care, including health care.

This is important. But perhaps we need to fundamentally rethink ageing. For one thing, those reaching their sixties are the fittest, best educated and wealthiest that we have ever seen – courtesy of the welfare state, and the universal and free provision of health and education. There are also a lot more of them – and they are not homogeneous in what they do and how they view the world.

They are reshaping the leisure and recreation economy as they look to travel or develop new interests and activities in their later years. They are working longer, especially in New Zealand. More than 20 per cent of over 65s are still in paid work (12 per cent in the UK and 10 per cent in Australia). Sixty-five is no longer the age of retirement, even if it is the age of superannuation eligibility. And their purchasing power is unprecedented.

But is the rapidly growing ‘silver economy’ being reflected in how we organise our lives as communities and as a country? Not really. There are some industries that are well aware of the implications, and retirement homes are an obvious growth area. But surely more is required.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has an interesting initiative that seeks to promote age-friendly cities. This invites cities to think about how they not only cater for elderly populations but also how they contribute to the wellbeing of these populations in ways that benefit everyone.

One initiative might be to encourage intergenerational living spaces so that the elderly are not confined to communities and buildings that house only other people of their own age. This might involve the co-location of a crèche with a retirement home, such as is happening in the Netherlands. Or the “silver human resource centres” in many Japanese cities, which seek to maximise the involvement in community activities of elderly Japanese.

What are the options (or incentives) for downsizing housing? How should streetscapes and public spaces be designed to cater for the elderly in interesting and appropriate ways?

The point is not to see ageing as a problem, or the aged as increasingly withdrawing from the broader community. Some of this is the responsibility of those who are ageing but a lot more could be done in New Zealand to make firms, local authorities or the government more aware of the possibilities of silver producer/consumer/volunteer engagement and provision.

One issue will be to consider where these initiatives and the inevitable services should be based. There is a growing mismatch as some regions and towns age much faster than others.

Auckland is home to the largest group of over 65s (163,000). They are still a low percentage of the population (11 per cent) but they constitute more than a quarter of the population in Thames-Coromandel or Kapiti. And by the 2030s, there are large parts of New Zealand where more than 30 per cent of the population will be 65 or older. Already there are more people over the age of 65 than under the age of 15 in a growing number of areas.

We know this – and we know with a great deal of certainty what the next decade will bring. Isn’t it time we took a new look at ageing and at what we should be doing?

Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley is the Pro Vice-Chancellor of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University. 


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