Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds Hello. I’m Professor Des O’Neill, a geriatrician and a cultural gerontologist at Trinity College, Dublin. Cultural gerontology is a relatively new field of inquiry in gerontology, looking at how arts, culture, and leisure interact with ageing. In this module, we’re going to talk about the longevity dividend, one of the key emerging concepts in our knowledge base of ageing. We’re going to start with this vibrant image, one of the most iconic of modern art and one of the highlights of the Tate Modern in London. Measuring three metres by three metres, “The Snail” is a radical and attractive work of art, and represents a major change of direction for the artist.
Skip to 0 minutes and 53 seconds It was painted by the 83-year-old Matisse and arises, in part, from a disability. He had undergone a complicated abdominal operation and could no longer stand up to paint, so changed to a style involving cutting out shapes of paper. This combination of artistic mastery and disability illustrates a number of lessons about ageing. The first is that this masterpiece symbolises the many gifts that our increased lifespan has brought to us, a phenomenon known as the longevity dividend, the subject of this module. It also tells us that disability of later life does not diminish our potential to contribute to the lives of others. We are also reminded that radical change can occur in later life, dispelling cliches of conservatism in old age.
Skip to 1 minute and 56 seconds As we begin to recognise other manifestations of the longevity dividend, such as the Guggenheim Museum in New York designed at age 73 by Frank Lloyd Wright or the amazing Dublin Convention Centre created by the 87-year-old Kevin Roche, we will come to see the longevity dividend as a key to understanding ageing, adding a badly needed counterbalance to the usual discourse on later life which focuses overly on the downsides of ageing, and correcting a failure to recognise that each stage of life is associated with growth and loss. In every field of human endeavour, we are increasingly blessed with the fruits of the longevity dividend.
Skip to 2 minutes and 47 seconds In classical music, we might turn to Verdi’s “Falstaff” composed at the age of 79, Wagner’s “Parcifal,” or Elliott Carter’s “Flute Concerto” written at the age of 100. In popular music, the witty and laid back albums of Leonard Cohen both entertain and give insights into ageing. Many film directors have produced their greatest work in later life, such as Kurosawa and, indeed, Clint Eastwood in his wonderful movie “Gran Torino.” These examples lead the way to great political achievements in later life.
Skip to 3 minutes and 27 seconds Field Marshal Mannerheim of Finland is an exemplar brought out of retirement at age 72 to defeat the Russians twice in the Winter and Continuation Wars and, more importantly, using his wisdom of later life to know how and when to sue for peace. Charles de Gaulle, at 67, led the Fifth Republic very successfully and engineered the withdrawal from Algeria. And Churchill and Reagan’s formidable achievements of their later years are also remarkable examples of the longevity dividend. However, on the other hand, Marshal Petain and Robert Mugabe, both ferociously capable in old age, rescue us from a sickly sanctification of the skills of later life, which do not protect us from fascist ideology or hideous avarice.
Skip to 4 minutes and 24 seconds The examples of these major figures illuminate more commonplace manifestations of the longevity dividend in the workplace, where older workers show themselves every bit as effective as younger workers. And they require less time off as a result of sickness. In the field of transport, the gains we have made with ageing in terms of better strategic thinking, wisdom, and altruism translate to older drivers having the safest record of any age group despite the highest level of medical conditions and disabilities. This longevity dividend extends to others in many ways. The risk of serious injury to children is halved if they’re being driven by their grandparents compared to their parents.
Skip to 5 minutes and 17 seconds These illustrations of the longevity dividend direct us to two further major benefits, the first of which is the economic longevity dividend arising from new markets, continued working, transfers, and a range of other issues. Far from being an economic burden on society, older people are net contributors. The economist Kevin P. Murphy has demonstrated a net financial longevity bonus of $1.3 million for each older US citizen. And a UK study has recently shown that older people enrich the economy in the UK by 40 billion pounds a year.
Skip to 6 minutes and 0 seconds In the final analysis, however, all of these gains should not obscure the most personal and relevant longevity gain– that of ourselves and our loved ones, as illustrated by these photos of my grandparents and parents. This gain has been expressed in terms of the equivalent of an extra five hours added to each day compared to the day of our grandparents. Not only will we have more time and gain deeper relationships with our parents and older relatives, but we too will survive longer and with less disability than any previous generation so as to claim our own personal stake in the longevity dividend.
Skip to 6 minutes and 47 seconds The main thrust of gerontology, the sciences of ageing, is to nurture, protect, and enhance the longevity dividend, which may be accompanied but not overshadowed by age-related disease and disability. The key learning objective for you is to tease out in what ways you rethink ageing into later life as your longevity dividend.
The longevity dividend
This video explores the many gifts that our increased life-span has brought us. This is a phenomenon known as the longevity or demographic dividend (O’Neill, 2011). It clarifies that disability in later life does not diminish our potential to contribute to the lives of others.
The longevity dividend is a key to understanding ageing, adding a badly needed counterbalance to the usual discourse on later life which focusses on the downsides of ageing, and correcting a failure to recognise that each stage of life is associated with growth and loss.
In every field of human endeavor, we are increasingly blessed with the fruits of the longevity dividend. These benefits extend from classical music through film, theatre (O’Neill, 2015), and poetry to the very real personal and economic benefits of the longevity dividend (Murphy and Topel, 2006).
Therefore, the main thrust of gerontology, the science of ageing, is to nurture, protect and enhance the longevity dividend, which may be accompanied, but not overshadowed, by age-related disease and disability.
- What personal gifts have you found in later life?
- How does the longevity dividend help you rethink your own personal narrative of ageing?
- How does it help you rethink ageing in society at large?