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.