Longevity was an emerging theme at this year’s World Economic Forum. Lynda Gratton salutes the leaders taking action now to maximise future opportunities
Listening to global experts thrash out the issues around longevity at this year’s Davos summit was heartening. It also made me even more aware of the crucial need for both short- and long-term planning and actions for the benefit of both individuals and societies. My workshop on the 100-year life and the panel discussion on prosperity in the age of longevity in which I took part yielded fresh insights into the unprecedented opportunities that longevity will offer.
Societies are set to benefit from the accumulated wisdom of more people over the age of 70 than ever before. As Linda Fried, Dean of Public Health at Columbia University, put it, “Imagine what a long life spent in good health will unlock – it unlocks the opportunity to work, to fulfil individual goals and to make an impact as an older adult.”
When four or even five generations are alive together – what a wonderful opportunity for intergenerational collaboration and cohesion. Listening to the deep wisdom of Henry Kissinger (aged 93), as he addressed a packed conference hall on the arc of history, I was reminded of how important this wisdom can be at times of anxiety and disappointments. As David Agus, Professor of Medicine and Engineering at Keck School of Medicine, USC pointed out, brains holding 40 years of accumulated experience are an asset, not a liability.
A healthy old age requires that we dispense with the concept of retirement. Jo Ann Jenkins is the Chief Executive Officer of AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons), which has 38 million members in the US. Many of these older people want to work longer and are questioning what aging means. She made the poignant point that “70 is not the new 50” – it is completely different in terms of experience, wisdom and insight. Supporting long working lives has important implications for government – Andrew Scott, Professor of Economics at London Business School and I calculate that in a world of centurions, working into your eighties will be the norm.
William Morneau, Canadian Minister of Finance, described how Canadian policy is focusing on supporting lifelong learning through retraining whilst deepening people’s understanding of the labour market and what jobs are likely to be available now and in the future. This is crucial as the benefits of long-working lives are becoming clearer.
Canada has also pushed through a number of pension reforms, the Canadian government having prioritised how to support vitality, address the pension crisis and encourage people to work by both supporting people to work for longer, and reducing the anxiety they feel about getting older on a low income. If this succeeds it will go some way to addressing the inequalities of longevity. How can it be an opportunity for everyone? It’s sobering to note that, at present, in developed countries the rich live on average 12 years longer than the poor.
Professor Agus reported on studies that show that for every year that you stay at work over the age of 60, your chances of getting Alzheimer’s reduce by 3%. This is vital in a country like the US where healthcare costs are currently running at 17% of corporate spend. Moreover, the productivity and creativity benefits of cross-age working groups are well documented for corporations.
These long lives we can look forward to will not be lived in isolation. Professor Agus has clear evidence that connectedness strengthens health, whilst isolation reduces vitality. Over long lives strong, positive, enduring relationships are crucial, as is the framework of the family. In a world of increasing individualism, it’s important to remember the value of interdependencies. But as Babatunde Osotimehin from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reminded us, family structures are declining and we are tending to give lower priority to relationships and nurturing roles.
Whose responsibility is the challenges of longevity? The experts discussing the matter at Davos were of the view that it starts with the way people choose to live their own lives. As Dr Babatunde Osotimehin reflected, our health can often be driven by commerce and business, when it should be driven by the individual. He believes we should all get back to basics and become aware of our own potential. This self-determination was echoed by Lin Kobayashi, head of the International School of Asia. Thinking about lifelong learning this is her mantra: take personal responsibility, set an agenda to take action, even in the face of discomfort, and find a way to live with passion and purpose.
Taking action can also start with a “nudge”. Yasuhiro Sato, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Mizuho Financial Group in Japan, described how his company launched a project which gives employees an opportunity to measure their exercise and be rewarded by community coupons when they increase their exercise rate.
There was a strong consensus that society, governments and corporations need to move fast and find innovative solutions. Governments must address the pension crisis and the anxieties around a rapidly evolving labour market. Corporations need to drop age stereotypes and foster the flexibility that enables people to contribute at any stage in their life. Civil society should support stronger families, neighbourhoods and communities.
Beth Noveck, who directs the Governance Lab at Yale University, believes that policy change and action is more likely to take place when human ingenuity is combined with large data sets. Her emphasis is on testing and failing faster. For example, she has worked on a policy development initiative over six weeks with 200 people in an online environment, building both agility and diversity.
A successful age of longevity will depend on collaboration between stakeholders across cultures, countries and generations. The discussions at Davos exemplified the approach that’s required.