“Put simply, we are having fewer children and living longer,” says Michelle Gunn, an Australian journalist and social-affairs writer. Our time is undeniably the age of longevity.

At the turn of the century two and a half years ago, one in every 10 people worldwide was age 60 or older. Demographers estimate the ratio will increase to one in five by 2050 and to one in three by 2150.

Among those age 60 and above worldwide, two in five are over 65 and one in 10 is older than 80. In Japan, however, the graying of the population is far more advanced.

The age of 60 isn’t considered old anymore, says a Japanese official. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, in his weekly Cabinet e-mail newsletter, recalled in mid-May that Japan’s life-expectancy rate first exceeded age 50 in 1947, just two years after the end of World War II and 13 years ahead of the rest of the world. Today the country’s life-expectancy rate for men stands at 78.07 years and for women 84.93 years — both the highest in the world.

Last month government statisticians announced that 18.25 percent of the country’s 126.5 million people are aged 65 or older, while children under 15 years of age only account for 14.33 percent of the population. The traditional population pyramid has been turned on its head — an inverse pyramid of one child, two parents, four grandparents and several great-grandparents.

The number of Japanese age 65 and older is projected to reach 22 percent of the population by 2010 and 26 percent by 2025. By 2020, says a government official, it is likely that one in five Japanese will be older than 70.

The nation observed its annual Respect for the Aged Day on Sept. 15, kicking off the Week for the Elderly, another annual observance.

People tend to speak of respect for the elderly without thinking or doing much about it.

Recent news reports described how two youngsters tossed an aged homeless man into a canal in Osaka and how an old woman who lived alone was robbed and stabbed by a man posing as a visitor. Those responsible for these crimes still remain at large.

A television drama based on popular Japanese folklore and aired on a nationwide hookup early this month depicted a 60-year-old woman living in a remote and starving village being abandoned in the deep mountains because she was viewed only as an extra mouth to feed.

The concept of cradle-to-grave security is fast disappearing. The shrinking size of the working population, ages 15 to 64, means older people face a greater risk than ever of having to survive on inadequate pensions and insufficient medical attention.

Presently, there are seven workers for every two elderly people. This ratio, which indicates the dependency burden on potential workers, continues to fall.

Obviously it is not easy to get old now. Life is more like a marathon than a short sprint. National social-security schemes appear to be deteriorating and even falling apart in the face of the growing elderly population. The dream of a sweet retirement seems practically unattainable.

Herein comes the question: at what stage does old age begins?

“It’s most desirable that one should die before 40 years of age,” wrote Yoshida Kenko, one of Japan’s first essayists, in the 14th century. “You would otherwise have to live the rest of your life in total disgrace.” He died at age 68, an exceptionally long life in those days.

Jonathan Swift said that “every man desires to live long,” but that “no man would be old.” When invited to American lay preacher Julia Ward Howe’s 70th birthday party in 1889, physician, poet and essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes is said to have stated: “It is better to be 70 years young than 40 years old!” At the time he was 80. At age 85, American statesman and financier Bernard Baruch once commented: “To me old age is always 15 years older than I am.”

In human history, long life is nothing new. Archimedes lived to age 75 in the third century before Christ. Even earlier Socrates remained active until he reached age 70. Seneca the Younger, who defined old age as “an incurable disease,” wrote: “Anyone can stop a man’s life, but no one his death. A thousand doors open on to it.”

No matter how one interprets old age, he or she still has a freedom to enjoy and make the best use of the years left to live. No matter how old or young, one should be prepared to face a triple burden: child care, elderly care and, of course, seeing to one’s own well-being.

In Japan, every man has a 53.5 percent chance, and every woman a 75.3 percent chance, to survive and live to 80 years young!

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