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U3A Anniversary Conference

Issue date: 
Tuesday, 16 February 1999
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Nga mihi o te tau kia koutou.

Thank you for your welcome, and for the opportunity to share in this 10th Anniversary Conference of the University of the Third Age. The anniversary is one to celebrate in any event, but it is particularly appropriate that we can celebrate it in this, the United Nations' Year of the Older Person. That is actually a sensitive title to give to it, certainly for someone like me who bridles quite noisily when I read in the paper of an accident befalling a middle aged person of 40, or of a mishap occurring to an elderly man of 60. No-one can possibly take exception to being called older, in fact we can all confidently and accurately claim to be. Of course it is stupid to bridle, as I was reminded recently when I heard our Wellington City Missioner urge us not to complain about growing old, but to think of those who have not had the privilege.

I like the idea of three, rather than seven, ages, even if there is some uncertainty about what to call the Third. President Eisenhower agreed with the three age concept, and gave his own description of them all. They are, he said, Youth, Middle Age, and Aren't You Looking Well.

Staying with the USA for a moment longer, when that great Supreme Court Judge, Oliver Wendell Holmes, turned 90, he gave a radio broadcast, in which he said: "The riders in a race do not stop short when they reach the goal. There is a little finishing canter before coming to a standstill. There is time to hear the kind voice of friends and to say to oneself: 'The race is over, but the work never is done while the power to work remains'."

Or, as someone else put it more prosaically, no-one ever fully grows up.

It was surely that kind of perception that inspired the formation of U3A; for it certainly gives the opportunity to hear the voice of friends, whether it be a life long companion, or one new-found, or one of those voices that have surrounded us all our perceptive days, like Shakespeare or Keats or Mozart or Beethoven. And as well it gives us work to do, to enlarge our own understanding, to equip us all the better with knowledge, or even wisdom, which perchance we may share with our children or our grandchildren. I am certainly looking forward to the day when, well-qualified in terms of age, time will permit me to join up too.

The programme for your Conference is very appealing: wonderfully varied and tremendously interesting, emphasising, if emphasis were needed, the extent to which the frontiers of knowledge in the 21st century have been pushed out by the huge, probably unparalleled, changes that have occurred in the 20th. No facet of human life or thought has been left untouched; but I shall be interested to know whether, at the end of all that is to be said here, you will conclude that we are approaching Christopher King's quantum chaos, or whether beneath and through all the change those community values that we like to think once held us together are still there to hold us together in the next millennium.

There is a popular song, dating from 10 or so years ago, that has the refrain: "These are the days of miracle and wonder." Which is surely true, and reasonably-elegantly put. But the very next line begins, "and don't cry " Which is, perhaps, one of the reasons the song is not played so much any more - the idea that miracles and wonders can be something to cry about is not nearly so comfortable to live with as the sentiments expressed in most pop songs.

The 'miracle and wonder' I particularly want to talk about this morning, is the very great increase in the number of people who live into their "Third Age," both in New Zealand and in other developed countries, and the even greater numbers who will so in the near future. There has never, ever before, been such a demographic development.

A few facts and figures are, I suppose, in order, although I promise not to give the sort of statistical recitation that, all too often, is full of sound and duration, but which signifies nothing. The trends the figures reveal are what is important, rather than the specific measurements. They are New Zealand figures, but the trends are by no means limited to New Zealand - they apply to many other countries too.

There has been an increase in life expectancy in New Zealand over the past century. In very general terms, life expectancy used to be around 60 years and is now around 70 years, more or less a fifteen percent increase. This increase has taken place comparatively slowly and steadily. In the earlier part of this century life expectancy climbed because infant mortality declined. More recent increases have had more to do with many women and men actually living longer. Once, our forebears began to lose their age-mates during their thirties and forties. We now begin that process only in our fifties and sixties. And general life expectancy might very well continue to increase, given the continuing and increasingly rapid development of medical science.

The revolutionary change, however, is in the proportion of older people to younger people, a change that has occurred in a biological blink of an eye. We need only look back for a quarter century: during the past twenty five years, the number of New Zealanders 65 and over has risen by 50 per cent; those over 80 have doubled in number.

But this is just the forward slope of the demographic wave. The wave will swell and become much bigger during the next quarter century, and bigger again in the twenty five years after that.

At the moment, nearly 12 per cent of New Zealanders are 65 or older: by 2030, 18 percent will be. At the moment, there are 25 New Zealanders 65 or older for every 100 people of working age. By 2030, there will be 51. And something else is revealed when you look beneath the wave's statistical surface. At the moment, there are about 41 thousand New Zealanders over 80; that's 1.1 percent of us. By 2030, it's projected that there will be around 120,000 octogenarians, 2.8 percent of us. Twenty years after that, in 2050, there will be nearly 240,000 New Zealanders 80 years of age or over, or 5.7 percent of us.

At the same time, and largely ignored in what little public discussion there is about the effects of this oncoming demographic wave, is the profound social and economic effect the decline in the numbers in the younger and their succeeding generations will have. But that too is a demographic fact, although discussion of it must be left for another occasion.

The great increase in both the number of people over 65, and in their proportion of the total population, is, without doubt, one of the miracles referred to in the song; a new thing in the world, the direct result of humanity's amendment of a former natural law. Henceforth, barring a very great and highly unlikely increase in fertility rates, we can expect about a fifth of our population to be aged 65 or over - and about a quarter to be 60 or older - in perpetuity. Ours is no longer a 'young' country, and it never will be again.

Which of course also means, among many other things, that the image of who we are, that we like to project to ourselves, our stereotype of what is desirable, as seen in, say, television commercials - youth, athletic prowess and faces unlined by years - is becoming dangerously out of touch with our reality. Indeed, our national prejudices about age and the old are utterly illogical, because who are the elderly but those transposed in time by only a few short years - four decades at most, and more likely only one or two?

When age is mentioned as a public issue at all, it is usually to talk about its perceived problems, and only its perceived problems. The stereotypical image of the elderly includes their living in a sheltered housing complex or a residential care home, no matter that the huge majority of older people reside in ordinary housing. The stereotype, then, is depressingly outmoded and restrictive. The creation of life-enhancing, constructive and dignified alternative images of life in the Third Age is still some way down the public agenda.

So the miracle is indeed that the great majority of us will live to our 70s and 80s. The wonder of it is harder to define, because we can only speculate about how we will come to live with the change. We have little to guide us; in how, collectively, we are to respond to this great alteration still in progress in our society's circumstances. All our social instincts are sure to mislead us, to be "off," in one way or another.

For instance, members of all cultures, in all previous historical eras, have professed to value their elders. Now the respect is less automatic - or even, when stereotypes about ageing are not dispelled, absent. At least in part, this change is probably occurring because, until the last few decades, elders have been demographic rarities. The law of supply and demand, perhaps, applies: the fewer you have of whatever or whoever, the more they are worth. The corollary is that the more you have, the less it - or they - will be treasured. Once, voices of experience were rare, and therefore precious. Now, such voices are more commonly heard by Second Agers - and more often disregarded as being frustratingly cautious, perhaps; or worse, as voices expressing reproof, or stating opinions deemed to be 'behind the times.' This of course is a code phrase often employed to say something is wrong, without saying so too bluntly.

Yet the relative worth of experience and of modernity, the proper balancing of those two qualities, is a topic about which we seem, often, to be thoroughly confused. There are assumptions made about our capacities in later life that are, based on all the available evidence, completely unwarranted. Oddly, though, even older people seem to accept them, have inherited them perhaps, themselves, from an earlier era. Because when it comes to intellectual grasp and the capacity to learn, concern about the decline of those qualities with age is easily and commonly exaggerated. As the saying goes, age and cunning can prevail over youth and naivety, or, to employ a slightly more dignified formula, experience and maturity regularly will equal enthusiasm and youthfulness. Elderly students, for example, especially in interactions with each other, can be every bit as acute as their juniors - here, however, I imagine I'm preaching to the converted. But curiosity, ability to learn and above all, creativity, are not restricted to those in the First and Second Ages - Third Agers too, contrary to popular prejudice, posses these attributes, and abundantly. Even memory, for all that older people themselves worry that theirs is insufficient, for the most part remains more than adequate.

There is, however, another factor in the "wonder" of an older society, that is not at all so-easily dismissable. It is the question of how those who are elder, and those who are younger, are going to live, how both groups are going to support themselves. Because clearly, the current practice of complete "retirement" from economically-productive activity at 65 to live on publicly-funded superannuation, is going to become hugely more expensive. At current levels and at current savings rates, it will be unaffordable. Our country is not rich enough to support an increasing number of retired people from general revenue. At the moment, with our pay-as-we-go superannuation, there are approximately three workers in the New Zealand labour force for every pensioner. In three decades' time, as already mentioned, there will be only one worker for every retiree. As the New Zealand economic pie is not projected to be three times as large as it is now on a per capita basis in that time frame, change will be forced upon us. Perhaps more people will stay in paid employment for longer. The prohibition against compulsory retirement based on age will certainly provide greater opportunity to work longer. And we may see younger workers taxed more heavily to pay their seniors' pensions, or alternatively real pension incomes decline from current levels. I doubt that we can sustain non-targeted benefits for very long.

I am quite certain that we will, during the next three decades or so, see a re-definition of working-life span, a delay in the onset of the Third Age, simply because the hugely altered age-composition of our country will require it. Yet going back to work full-time, is to abandon the Third Age altogether. That is not good for anyone, the ageing or those looking for advancement behind them. Next month the legal profession is commemorating the 100th birthday of one of the great English Judges, Lord Denning. Respected and admired though he was, his colleagues, and those below him on the judicial ladder, were not especially enamoured of him when he announced that he had all the Christian virtues except resignation. So perhaps what will have to take place is a gradual switch, in late middle age and early old age, to part-time paid work, perhaps some forms of job-sharing, for a number of years, to supplement what will probably be a rather low state-funded pension.

Which might be no bad thing, because so often, when people abruptly retire completely from all paid work, the loss of the sense of identity that was previously derived from job status, and the radical change in life circumstances, increases stress levels in new retirees to the point that they can suffer major health problems. By staying at least part-time in the paid work force, perhaps more people in early retirement will be helped to confront their fears that their future can only contract, but can instead look forward to a further period of self-realisation and personal fulfilment.

And of course both for the current cohort of Third Agers, and for those who are going to join them, there are still public and community responsibilities. There is in fact a great deal that Third Agers can contribute, and that they do contribute. One of the changes that have affected society in recent years is the number of women who now take up a career, or who need to work out of sheer necessity. This has the effect of depleting the woman-power upon which so many of our voluntary organisations were founded and have long depended. Older women have always been the stalwarts, of course, but now their increased effort, and those of the men too, is becoming quite crucial to the survival of many organisations.

In a more general way, it is particularly important that those of us in the Third Age create two-way relationships with those in the First and Second - particularly important because of the frequent lack of role models for those who will shortly be growing older or old themselves. The example set by those in the Third Age, the sharing of experiences and understandings, is an age old responsibility, and privilege, of the elderly, and we must not shirk it, or let ourselves be too easily rebuffed. To be sure, this sort of interaction cannot be foisted onto people. But even so the elderly certainly must not isolate themselves, and both younger and older might be said to have something of a duty to make sure that this does not happen.

There is of course some self interest in this. For what can easily frustrate a happy Third Age for many is condescension, ignorance, or indifference to and about older persons. As a society, we have yet to become fully aware that our current notions about ageing are woefully inaccurate. Social expectations about older persons are rooted in those of a previous era, and in stereotypes which are now totally erroneous.

And so, I suggest, the New Zealand elderly, notably I would hope those banded together in institutions such as the University of the Third Age, have something of a responsibility to persuade, and if necessary to insist, that this country and its population learn more about age and ageing, that we all begin to prepare for our own not-so-distant future, to be and to act, in other words, our age. Then, we shall be able to truly enjoy this age of miracle and wonder, without at all being tempted to weep.

The guiding principle, I suggest, is that as we grow older, we live our lives as far as is possible not just in remembrance of our former, but in the expectation of our future, selves. The one thing which is increasingly certain is that we shall nearly all have a considerable future to cope with - endure, if that is what we have to do - but enjoy if we possibly can. The University of the Third Age is certainly one way, and a very effective way, of enabling us to do so.

Let me add this final thought, which harks back to the Conference theme. Age is supposed to bring wisdom and understanding. Often it does. The frontiers of knowledge in the 21st century can only advance for the benefit of the human race if those qualities are displayed in abundance. In the Listener a couple of years ago there was an article by Carl Sagan, the author and astrophysicist. It was called The Two-edged Sword. It began with these words:

"The 20th century will be remembered for three broad innovations : unprecedented means to save, prolong and enhance life; unprecedented means to destroy life, including for the first time putting our global civilisation at risk; and unprecedented insights into the nature of man and the universe."

And it concluded: "Whether we will acquire the understanding and wisdom, necessary to come to grips with the scientific revelations of the 20th century will be the most profound challenge of the 21st."

God willing, we all embark on that challenge in 10 months time.

Kia ora koutou katoa. Ka kite ano.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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