The Longevity Landscape

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When you think about ‘old age’, what first comes to mind?

During the recent cold snap, a friend posted: “Beautiful snow day in our gorgeous town. Think my favourite part was stopping in on our lovely older neighbour to check she was ok, only to find she’d beaten us to it and had already been out…sledging down the Parklands slopes. Absolute life goals right there!”

It’s a powerful reminder that too many of our initial perceptions about getting old haven’t caught up with the times, and for businesses in particular, cursory nods to ‘silver surfers’ are missing the point. It’s time we broke the traditional way of thinking about age and thought again about what opportunities and challenges come from an ageing population.

Although we all have a general sense that people are living longer, the actual facts on ageing are powerful and quite surprising:

  • A person currently aged 40 has an evens chance of living to 95
  • A child born in the West today has a more than 50% chance of living to be over 105
  • By 2045 a quarter of the UK population will be 65 and over, up from 18% in 2015
  • There are more boomers in the US alone than the combined populations of the UK, Switzerland and Israel
  • Older people are projected to exceed the number of children for the first time in 2047

A further perception about old age is that it remains a largely Western phenomenon. However this needs re-thinking too; two-thirds of the world’s older persons currently live in developing countries and it’s projected that by 2050, nearly eight in 10 of the world’s 60+ population will live in less developed regions.

What does this all mean for how we approach the idea of older life? I think there are two important implications, one about what it will actually mean to live longer lives and the second about the need for all of us to rethink the different stages of our lives.

The longevity dividend

One obvious benefit of livinglonger lives should be that we can enjoy more of life well into our later years. We are going to be ‘younger for longer’ – and so there should be a dividend for wider society in terms of the productivity and contribution made by the older population.

The idea of a ‘longevity dividend’ was first introduced by Olshansky et al, who believed that public health interventions like dietary changes or genetic alterations could result in benefit for wider society.

However the concept of a dividend from longevity is based on several presumptions. Firstly: our later years will be healthy, rather than dominated by prolonged illness; secondly: other health issues like obesity won’t end up reducing longer life; thirdly: enduring perceptions of older people and outdated social structures don’t preclude them from being able to participate fully in society well beyond the traditional retirement age. These attitudes to older people are currently very entrenched – think for example about some of the commentary suggesting that 65 year olds won’t be around to experience a post-Brexit world. This overlooks that the majority of 65 year olds will live for more than two decades into the future.

The end of the three stage life

The second implication involves how we all view the different stages of our lives.

For a forty-something today, can you imagine a retirement of 35 or more years? What would you do? And how would you afford it?

For someone in their twenties, do you foresee the undergraduate degree you have just taken will provide you with sufficient skills to see you through a 60 year career in a rapidly changing world? And how do you prepare financially for a later life that might be 80 years away?

The typical path that many anticipate – education, followed by career and then retirement – is starting to look not just untenable but undesirable. It’s the beginning of the end for the traditional three-stage life, as Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott argued powerfully in their recent book, ‘The 100 Year Life.’

Over the arc of a 100 year life, we need to re-think each of these stages:

  • Education and training will need to be revisited in different forms and at different times in a longer life, in order for individuals to stay current, engaged and employable.
  • Careers will need to be thought of differently – with different phases and stages, as maintaining momentum over a 70 year career requires different models of working and thinking.
  • ‘Retirement’ as we currently see it is already evolving rapidly for some, won’t exist for others and represents exciting different ways of combining work and other interests over the course of a longer lifetime.

Of course, there are other important aspects of our lives that will also change hugely with longevity, such as health and wellbeing, relationships and family dynamics. A longer life and more fluid career structure, for example, allow for the possibility of two people in a relationship ‘taking turns’ in focusing on their careers or family; raising children will be a relatively smaller proportion of an adult’s life.

Older age has generally been viewed negatively – as a time associated with frailty/illness and financial constraints. Gratton and Scott argue that the 100 year life should be seen as a gift, for with “foresight and planning…it is a life full of possibilities, and the gift is the gift of time.” Yet, they also emphasise that how we choose to structure and use that time is what will determine whether our longer lives truly are a gift. They identify innovation and creativity as vital if we, as a society, are to develop more sustainable models of living, working and enjoying ourselves to fit our longer lives.

The potential dividend is there for the taking if we can start to innovate and adopt a more creative approach to longevity. However, we are missing a massive opportunity, poised awkwardly on the cusp of a new stage that we do not seem equipped to deal with. We’re neglecting the chance to develop a positive vision for what a longer, healthier working life – an extended middle age, if you like – could look like. How is it characterised? How do those enjoying a prolonged middle age want to be described? What brands think they are targeting these individuals? What brands are these individual actually enjoying?

Millions of people are going to be enjoying an extended middle age and others are going to start reconfiguring their route through education and employment. It’s time we embraced a new model for a new age.

I am leading on longevity research at Message House to help our clients understand the answers to these and other questions and I will continue to share ideas and evidence in future posts.

Further reading:

  • ‘The 100 Year Life’, by Lynda Gratton & Andrew Scott, Bloomsbury, London 2017
  • For stats on ageing, see the UN, as well as ‘The Silver Dollar – Longevity Revolution Primer’, Bank of America & Merrill Lynch, (6/6/14) and also an interesting piece in The Times by Janice Turner, ‘It’s time we saw older people as a blessing and not a problem’ (23/12/17)
  • For the original article on the medical longevity dividend, see The Scientist (01/03/06)