20 November 2012

Redefining age: IIASA population researcher wins ERC Advanced Grant

IIASA demographer Sergei Scherbov has won an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council to explore population aging and its impacts on Europe and beyond.

© Jborzicchi | Dreamstime.com

© Jborzicchi | Dreamstime.com

The grant, which goes to IIASA’s World Population Program, is 4th ERC grant at IIASA and the 6th ERC grant won by a researcher at the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital – more than any other European research group of a comparable size. The Wittgenstein Centre is a collaboration between IIASA, the Vienna Institute of Demography, and the Vienna University of Economics and Business.

They say that 40 is the new 30. That is truer than people know, says Scherbov, who also holds appointments at the Vienna Institute of Demography and the Wittgenstein Centre. “We should not consider someone who is 60 or 65 to be an older person,” says Scherbov. “People now are much healthier and much ‘younger’ than people were at the same age in previous generations.”

In Europe and other developed regions of the world, life expectancy has increased significantly in recent decades, and continues to increase. As people live longer, they also stay healthier longer. But traditional measures of age have not changed, and therefore a growing section of the population gets categorized as old just because they have hit the magic age of 65. This somewhat arbitrary measure has major implications for pensions, for health care systems, and for the labor force.

Under the new ERC grant, Scherbov and colleagues will develop new ways to measure aging that more accurately represent the real world. These new metrics for the first time include factors like life expectancy, health, disability, cognition, and ability to work – measures that explain how people live and what they need, not just the number of years they have lived.

One new metric, called prospective age, flips around age. Scherbov says, “We measure age not as years since birth, but as distance from expected death.”  That means that as life expectancies increase, people become younger under this perspective at the same chronological age. This method sets the threshold for “old” at 15 years to projected life expectancy.

Other new aging metrics account for health, disability, and other factors that tend to change with age. To develop these new metrics, the researchers will use population-wide information on health status and adult disability from a variety of countries in Europe and around the world. These dynamic measures account for the fact that many people over age 65 are independent and healthy, while there are also some people under 65 who may be disabled and in need of care.

During the course of the grant, the researchers also aim to model how life expectancy will evolve in the future. Scherbov says, “We need better predictions of how life expectancy will change.” While some demographers say that life expectancy has a maximum limit, others believe that it will continue increasing without pause.  The researchers plan to assess current mortality models, developing a new model that includes the more comprehensive measures of aging, health, and disability.

The project, which will take place over 5 years, will include data from countries in Europe primarily, as well as Japan, Costa Rica, and other countries with good population data. 

“This question of redefining age by including other dimensions of human capital and applying it in the context of global population ageing is right at the heart of the mission of the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital” says Wolfgang Lutz, founding director of the Wittgenstein Centre and leader of IIASA’s World Population Program. “This research is expected to make a major contribution to the global demographic  discourse and also prepare the way for socially acceptable  policy strategies for adjusting to demographic change.”


More Information

ERC Advanced Grants support projects by established researchers to pursue ground-breaking new research that opens up new directions in their fields. .

The Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital is a collaboration between the World Population Program of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), the Vienna Institute of Demography of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (VID/ÖAW), the Demography Group and the Research Institute on Human Capital and Development of the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU).  


IIASA is an international scientific institute that conducts research into the critical issues of global environmental, economic, technological, and social change that we face in the twenty-first century. Our findings provide valuable options to policy makers to shape the future of our changing world. IIASA is independent and funded by scientific institutions in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe. previous.iiasa.ac.at


Print this page

Last edited: 07 November 2013


Sergei Scherbov

Distinguished Emeritus Research Scholar Social Cohesion, Health, and Wellbeing Research Group - Population and Just Societies Program

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Schlossplatz 1, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria
Phone: (+43 2236) 807 0 Fax:(+43 2236) 71 313