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Last Updated: Monday, 21 June, 2004, 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK
Live long and prosper - but there's a catch
By Mary Braid

We are living longer and have more money than ever. But, research shows, there is a significant catch. Guess what - it's about cash.

Pensions protester
Here's the catch
A redrawn portrait of the seven stages of life from infancy to old age shows that lifestyles have changed dramatically - not only in the 400 years since Shakespeare famously charted the journey from mewling infant to "mere oblivion", but in the past few decades.

Of the babies born today, a significant minority will grow up in a family unit which is a far cry from 1950s norm of two married parents. By nine months, 15% will already be living with just mum. Of these, half will see their natural fathers just once a week, while four in 10 will have no contact at all.

For modern family life is increasingly unstable, with more frequent partnerships and step-families now common. But extended family links remain strong, with grandparents often stepping in to look after babies while their mothers work.

Working mums

Does having a working mother alter the life chances of the millennium child?

"The effects that have been found are small and the jury is still out," says Maria Iacovou, who contributed to the Economic and Social Research Council's report, Seven Ages of Man and Woman.

Newborn baby
The family unit has changed
One recent study shows that the children of mothers who return to work before their first birthday do slightly less well in school. But Ms Iacovou warns that this has to be weighed against the greater negative effects of missing out on that income.

But regardless of whether their mothers work or not, today's children emerge from school with more qualifications than ever before.

While girls have closed the gender gap in academic achievement by overtaking boys, this is not a trend which extends into the world of work, even in professions where men and women enter with the same qualifications.

Equal work, unequal pay

Women's participation in the workplace has risen from 59% to 70% in the past 20 years, a rise almost entirely due to an increase in part-time employment.

Yet a quarter of a century after the first equal pay legislation, women still earn around 20% less than men.

"On paper, recruitment and selection processes seem to be gender-neutral but in practice they are anything but," says social researcher Keith Whitfield. "The gender gap is narrowing but only very slowly - and more slowly than in many other European countries."

Despite such inequalities, 30-something women are somewhat more contended with their lot than their male counterparts.

Happiness is...

The happiest in this age group - male and female - are those living with a partner; the unhappiest are men still living with their parents. And the number of men who have either returned to - or never left - the family home has doubled in the past decade to one in six.

Women at work in the 1930s
Options aplenty for today's women
Today's 30-somethings are also more likely to complain of being stressed, with little time for loved ones. A quarter of women, and half of men, with children regret not being able to spend more time with their offspring.

Depression and anxiety has doubled in the past 12 years. And love, it seems, is not necessarily the answer. One in five men, and one in four women, say they are unhappy with their partner. A decade ago, one in 30 were dissatisfied with their relationship.

Telegram from the Queen

While stress plagues those in their 30s, middle age is characterised by underestimating the need to cater for the years to come.

Life expectancy is on the up, but researcher James Banks says we spend our middle years drastically underestimating how long we will be around.

Centenarian Ambrosine Nielsen with her telegram
Is 100 now too young to get a telegram from the Queen?
And that could mean an old age of scrimping and saving, as many are failing to save enough for a comfortable pension. Women, who survive longest, under-estimate by the greatest margin.

A couple of decades ago centenarians were a rarity. Today there are 6,000 in England and Wales, and it's estimated there will be 39,000 in 30 years.

Thus perhaps the Queen might rethink the age at which she sends out telegrams, says researcher Carol Jagger. "I think 110 might soon be a more suitable age."

She adds that the "oldest old" are currently enjoying a far better quality of life than previous generations, although one-fifth of over-75s sometimes feel that life is not worth living.

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