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How long do you expect to live? If the question is a little candid, it is also absolutely germane. And that is because we humans are living longer than at any other point in our history.
Since the 1850s there has been a steady shift in global demography and longevity. With the introduction of public health systems, people in many countries began to have a better chance of living beyond the age of 40. Over time countries became more differentiated in terms of how life expectancy, as well as the number of children being born to families.
A century later, in the 1950s, advances in cardiology meant that a heart attack, long the scourge of middle age, did not automatically mean a death sentence.
Today, medicine is tackling the diseases of old age. The pharmaceutical industry is making significant investments in prolonging lives, driving a demographic transition across the globe. In Japan for example, this demographic transition means that the average citizen age is now 46. In tandem, the country has become a beacon for the rest of the world, investing heavily in AI and robotics to help people remain productive for longer.
“China will age faster than Japan as longevity increases and family size diminishes”
But if Japan has the oldest population on the planet, the rest of the world is following closely behind. Indeed, China will age faster than Japan as longevity increases and family size diminishes. And populations in the west are expected to follow suit.
As people age, what does it mean for countries, societies, businesses and individuals? What will happen when everyone lives to 100?
Typically, we think about the path of our life in three stages. We start in full-time education, progress to full-time work and finally move into full-time retirement. These three stages also bind us to age cohorts: if you’re in your teens you’re part of the college cohort; 20s to 65 you’re a worker; and those of us 65 or older are all bus-pass holders.
Packaging life up neatly into three stages is good news for governments, it makes policy-making straightforward as age equals stage. But as the global population gets older, it is unlikely that this simple framework can survive. Pension policies that worked with older generations (because people died younger) cannot indefinitely remain financially viable. And in a 100 year life, retirement at 65 will mean more than 35 years on the golf course. And that’s economically unsustainable by any measure.
Meanwhile, research suggests that retirement might actually be bad for our health. While rewarding work brings social capital, drives connectivity and keeps us moving, almost the opposite can be said for protracted periods of retirement – especially if economic options are restricted.
So, what’s the answer?
Should we save more of our salary? Should we retire on less than 50% of our working income? Or, as Andrew Scott and I believe, will we need to continue to work into our mid-70s?
Working until the age of 75 has little appeal if we continue to think about life in terms of the three-stage rubric of education, career and retirement. But longer life gives us an opportunity to re-think this paradigm and look for alternative ways to imagine age.
This will come with challenges. Getting a job in any country when you are over the age of 55 is hard – ageism is as widespread as it is embedded. In most countries set views about age are part of the fabric of the culture – as insidious as they are deleterious to individual choices. Tackling age discrimination will be crucial in avoiding fiscal catastrophe and supporting a countries’ healthcare system. As populations age, the onus will be on governments to rethink policy and regulation.
But it’s not just about government action- across our communities we need to shift how we think about age. Typically age is viewed chronological – the number of candles on your birthday cake. But how you age is not simply determined by your DNA, which accounts for less than 25% of the ageing process. The good news is that lifestyle really matters – how we exercise, what we eat and the way we live. We have the chance to live healthily into our eighties, nineties and possibly one-hundreds.
And if 80 is the new ‘old’ – then working into our seventies make sense. But what does that that say about the three-stage life? What changes do we need to make as employers or employees to better utilise talent and resources across this long life? And what do we need to do to sustain ourselves and preserve a good quality (longer) life?
One answer is to shift to a new paradigm. A more flexible life structure that gives us the option of reorganising our time so that assigning activities (leisure, work, learning, sabbaticals, caring) takes place across our whole life – in other words a multi-stage life.
Making this transition means fundamentally considering and redistributing time as a resource. And that bring challenges. Take for example taking time out for learning or caring. In most cultures and organisations, employees are penalised for taking time off work. Indeed parental leave often carries sanctions that inevitably impact salary or professional advancement, so much so that most men in the west refuse to take it. The results are often negative, creating a rigidity that pushes employees down narrow career channels, creating well-being issues and causing stress.
“There’s a very real need for employers and employees to urgently discover new ways of distributing time”
If we are going to work until later in our lives, there’s a very real need for employers and employees to urgently discover new ways of distributing time that breaks away from the linear. What’s to stop us from dipping into retirement time earlier and repurpose that time for, say, education and training? Because living to 100 and working to 75 in the era of digital disruption and technological innovation, will mean prioritising learning. There is no doubt that as the impact of machines on work gathers pace, there will be a constant need to reskill, upskill and acquire new knowledge.
Automation, AI and robotics raise deeper questions about what it means to be human at a time of longevity. As routine tasks are increasingly performed by machines, so the more cognitive or empathic skills become the purview of humans. Ensuring that employees can stay creative and productive longer into their working lives means that as well as making time for training, organisations will need to prioritise their creativity and well-being too.
Wellbeing hinges on good health. Living longer and staying fit and healthy means investing significant amounts of time in activities like sport and exercise. But health is only part of our well-being. Friendships and relationships have an enormous role to play in our long-term happiness. As family structures change and ever more women have careers, traditional family roles are evolving and being replaced by more ‘negotiated’ and time intensive relationships.
Today’s work structures were designed for a specific type of family, of technology, of life expectancy that is now changing – and changing fast. The challenge for organisations is to become more flexible and adaptive. The challenge for each one of us is to think deeply about how we distribute our time, how we learn and explore, and how we remain healthy and happy in our lives. The good news is that that we’re going to have plenty of time on our hands to ponder these things.
The New Long Life: a Framework for Flourishing in a Changing World by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott will be published this May by Bloomsbury. Pre-order it here