Is living so much longer a gift or a curse? Professors Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, of London Business School, explore how individuals and businesses can make longevity work for them, reports Simon Caulkin.
It’s a stretch to think of a newborn as a centenarian. Yet, short of planetary catastrophe, of the children born in England and Wales on this day – 2,000 sons, daughters and grandchildren – more than half are likely to still be alive, if not kicking, in 2116. That’s extraordinary. But the lives they live won’t just be longer. The 100-year life, say Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott in their striking new book of the same name, changes everything: for individual lives, for the organisations they work for, and for governments that have to regulate and balance the consequences for wider society.
The 100-Year Life maps a disconcerting territory in which familiar objects have changed position and signposts point in a different direction from the past. The outcome of a three-year conversation between psychologist Gratton and economist Scott, the book begins to pick apart “great globules” of new ideas that were generated by the collision of disciplines. Not all of them have been, or possibly can be, deconstructed until they actually transpire. Nevertheless, while there’s a huge amount of research still to be done, “we’ve set out a framework, a structure and some directions of travel,” says Scott, in which the outlines of this brave new world become visible.
When students are confronted with the implications of living for 100 years, say the authors, their first reaction is, “OMG, this is dreadful – we’re going to have to work till we’re 80!” Others fret that increasing longevity means being old, possibly lonely and infirm, longer. And it’s true that, extrapolating from today, the financial and health ramifications are sobering. People will have to cultivate their lives better, more actively, and from an earlier age. Indeed, how to do so will have to be part of everyone’s education. But potentially, Gratton and Scott insist, ever longer lifespans are a gift, not a curse, a precious extension of life that makes time for more experiences, multiple careers, richer relationships and greater possibilities for self-actualisation. The shorter the life, the more the path reflects its starting point and the more important the initial context, points out Gratton. The longer the life, “the farther you can travel from your beginnings. Initial conditions matter less.”
Today, our adult lives all follow the same three-stage linear trajectory – education, then work, followed by retirement. There’s only one order a person can live the stages, and choices have to be made within that framework. But, in a 100-year life, the fixed succession can’t hold. It will have to yield to “a way of living that is more flexible and more responsive – a multistage life with a variety of careers, with breaks and transitions. In fact, we believe this is the only way to make a long life a gift”, write the authors. The breakdown of the three-stage life, they warn, will send seismic tremors through the corporate, institutional and legislative structures that have cohered around it (think education, welfare, healthcare, career and pension), but the immediate onus will be on individuals grappling to make sense of it in their own lives. It’s no accident that young people are quicker to ‘get’ the implications than their elders: they are already beginning to live the shift.
In a life that has seven or eight stages instead of three, the resequencing combinations become nearly endless. Coupled with longevity, that puts added emphasis on choice and options. Economics teaches that the value of options is dependent on duration and volatility. There is little doubt that the next half century will be one of massive turbulence in employment as technology-fuelled, corporate and demographic change coalesce. Many of today’s jobs will disappear as software continues to eat the world. Others undreamed of may – or may not – take their place. That makes it hugely important to avoid dead ends. “The longer the horizon the option can be exercised in, the greater the value in not shutting it down, especially for 18- to 30-year-olds who have furthest to go,” says Scott.
While keeping some options open, however, it will be crucial to make some decisions as early as possible: savings, for example. In Gratton and Scott’s imagined personal scenarios, it will be simply impossible for those starting work today – most of whom will be alive into the 22nd century – to accumulate enough wealth to support them in even modest comfort through 35 years of retirement. For most, working longer is the only option, and the earlier people start to build financial assets, the broader the range of options they will have later. Less obviously, the same goes for intangible assets. Seriously unwise lifestyle habits in your apparently carefree twenties may restrict your choices later. Also, points out Gratton, you cannot acquire a new best friend or partner overnight to lend a shoulder through a difficult transition at age 55. “You can buy a house in the country to start a new life, but not new friends. The consequences of the allocation of time at any moment are cumulative – so we have to think more carefully about the consequences,” she warns.
Indeed, one of the strongest conclusions in the book is the importance of intangible assets of all kinds for a blessed, long life – networks and relationships, obviously. The 100-year life will demand further changes in traditional gender roles, meaning that men will have to get better at tending social capital (including within their own families), while women may be unable to make their finances work on their own. Both will have to become more adept at switching roles and priorities with partners as they negotiate new stages. Developing personal resilience will also count: plasticity, flexibility, willingness to engage with the new, juvenescence – the willingness to retain a playful, even adolescent, streak. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy: and dullness is not a bankable asset for a 100-year life. On the contrary, “All that day-dreaming, trying on different personalities, just messing about – it can all help to keep you curious and open to the world,” Gratton emphasises.
Unfortunately, the things that make for a full and happy life for individuals will be a pain in the neck for organisations and governments, the hidden architects and curators of our current three-stage life. This, it now becomes clear, has resulted in a kind of social apartheid by age group which eases administration but is hopelessly out of sync with the fluid life patterns now coming into being. “So much legislation and corporate practice uses fixed or turnstile dates,” muses Scott. “Think of how much you can predict from knowing someone’s age and gender within a firm: rank, title, salary, incentives – that’s all going to be scrambled.” The consequences for use of time and leisure may be as momentous as those triggered by the Industrial Revolution. Firms will want to try to keep it simple, believe the authors, but this time around, individuals with ideas and human capital are the scarce resource – and they are already drawing the conclusions. Corporations will either have to get personal – for all their protestations, “at the moment they know more about their consumers than their own personnel,” notes Gratton – or, at the other end of the spectrum, outsource even more than they do now. The advantages of the plug-and-play employment model used in the emerging platform economy will not be lost on employers struggling to respond to the unpredictable and fragmenting demands of a much more age-diverse workforce, giving a further stir to the pot of change now brewing. As Gratton concludes, “Organisations are going to have to come up with answers to some quite deep questions.”
Both authors agree that companies are remarkably unprepared for the turbulence about to hit them. The fallout from the 100-year life will be even more unwelcome for governments, where the inertia is much greater. Yet, if longer life is to be a gift rather than a curse, the issues need to be confronted now. A multistage, 100-year life makes nonsense of much current state provision. How much sense does it make to burden 20-somethings at the start of a 60-year working life with huge debts in return for an education that may be out of date long before it’s paid off? “No knowledge can last the 60 years of a working career,” says Scott. “Education can’t be a single, upfront and depleting investment: it has to be spread over a whole career.” As in pensions and training, a whole raft of lifetime provisions will have to replace today’s age-related ones, the authors believe, alongside a wholesale unpicking of the body of legislation that underpins them. More obvious urgency attaches to issues of health and welfare. Given that the NHS already spends four and a half times more per head on the over-65s than the under-25s, the long-mooted switch from cure to prevention has to begin now, and fast. The same goes for public services in general: today’s minimal safety-net packages do little to boost the personal resilience and adaptability that will be essential equipment for life in a more entrepreneurial economy.
And here is the main rub: one of the authors’ biggest worries is a growing life expectancy as well as income divide. While the better-off half of the population can confidently anticipate a 100-year life, for the poorer half it’s just 85 years. “A 15-year difference in life expectancy just because of income is grossly unfair,” insists Scott. “We tried to tackle income inequality in the 21st century; we have to do the same for health.” Another anxiety is about lower-paid workers with less in-demand skill sets and little bargaining power with employers. These workers face the unappealing prospect of having to work to age 75 or 80, with a life expectancy of 85. “That can’t be right: that’s a backward step,” says Scott. “So, how do we make sure that it’s not just those with a private income and resources who get the benefit of those extra years?”
In short, the 100-year life delineates a massive agenda for those who live it, organisations that are playing catch-up and governments called on to deal with the consequences. “For individuals,” says Gratton, “it’s existential: about nothing less than growing up, psychologically becoming an adult and taking responsibility for the shape of a life from the institutions of work and state that have governed it for the last four generations. For organisations, it’s about a new contract with a different, less biddable and wildly more diverse workforce. And for governments, which have underestimated the growth of longevity for decades, it’s way past time to get real, face up to the implications and start the urgent conversation about making the 100-year life a blessing for every citizen.”
And this is just the start. “Yes, of course it has been great doing this research,” says Scott. “But behind that, what we are really trying to do is change the world.”
How can you get ready for this radical change? Lynda and Andrew have a few ideas
For more information on their book visit http://www.100yearlife.com/