Living longer: are we getting older or younger for longer?

Ana Amélia Camarano, researcher of the department for social policies at the Institute for Applied Economics (IPEA) in Brazil, reflects about the fact that more people are reaching older age worldwide. It is what she calls a ‘survival democratization’. In Brazil, for example, life expectancy rose by almost 12 years between 1980 and 2013. So, the question that motivated the study is: “how this ‘new years’ of life are being experienced”?

The increase in life expectancy and the changes around the way we observe life-cycle is connected with progress in medical science and guarantee of the social rights, by a institutional side, and with social dimensions like education, working hours, career patterns and right to retirement. In this sense, human life phases are being re-drawn in response to these changes. If in the Antiquity the human life phases were traditionally divided by biological events like puberty, menarche, motherhood, menopause, etc., then, in the modern state, our private life started to be regulated by phases of education and our cycle in the labour market.

In the last 30 years, men are passing more time in school, beginning earlier and leaving later. What makes they enter the labour market later too. The proportion of this change is that the beginning of economic activities rose from 16.0 to 17.6 years and people are retiring earlier. These retired individuals are looking for new forms of social integration: attending university, interest in computer learning, changing jobs, divorcing, remarrying. Now it is possible to begin a new life after the 50’s. Even more because brazilian law allows retirees to return to economic activities without any restrictions. Consequently, in 2013, about 34% out of retired men aged 60 to 69 years were working. Moreover, deaths are increasingly concentrated at extreme ages. This period of life comes with our constructed idea that associates age and diseases, or bodily degeneration, responsible for a pessimistic view that highlights badly characteristics of old age.

Another change is that childhood has been shortened. Sexual life tends to occur earlier and the access to the universe of young and adults by children has been antecipated. These facts results in “a shortening of childhood and the loss of its specificity as an age […] On the other hand, adolescence and youth are becoming longer”, since individuals require more time to prepare themselves to become economicly productive. Young people are leaving their parents or relatives houses to begin an independent life later. In Brazil, the mean age for men leaving their parents home rose from 26.0 years in 1980 to 28.2 years in 2010. For such reason, the author observes that this generation is called “kangaroo, boomerang, yo-yo or parasite generation”. Assuming that adulthood starts later, the question becomes whether it ends later too.


Especially since the 1980s, elderly people have become increasingly visible political actors in Brazilian society, gaining the attention of the consumer, leisure and tourism industries. The idea of old age is no longer that of a time during which individuals are excluded from social life. The portion that is living through the final phase of life, with all its frailties, could be termed the fourth age, or traditional old age.

Technological progress offers a wide range of alternative means for preventing or reducing body’s aging. And “youth” has become not only a definition for an specific age, but also a value for an appropriate lifestyle and forms of consumption.

Pressures for resisting the process of aging are stronger among women. The ‘need’ for a youthful appearance is necessary for competing with younger females for a partner. Studies revealed that 75.2% of elderly Brazilian men had a spouse against only 41.7% of elderly women who did so.

The emergence of old age as a social category try to understand such heterogeneity in this group seeing two types of aging: active or successful, and fragile. All this has expanded the range of possibilities for men and women throughout the life-cycle and allows the re-conceptualization of life course.

By Perola Mathias

Original paper from the Journal of the Brazilian Anthropology Association – Volume 13, n.1, 2016.

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