Three Horizons of Longevity

What sort of person do you imagine hires a personal trainer? A time-pressed exec? A mum getting back into shape after having kids? What about an active 86-year old? Personal Trainer Alex Church recently recounted to me that “My newest client is a very sprightly 86-year old. She’s active and healthy, and keen to keep pushing herself. She’s still investing for her future healthy self and it’s so inspiring to see such enthusiasm and commitment. I imagine I’ll start to see more and more clients among this age group.”

This example of being fit and active in what we have always considered a much older age is an encouraging reminder of what longevity might look like, for some at least. So, what does the future hold? To explore this, I’ve used a powerful futures technique called three horizons, which helps us to think about how living longer might play out.

Three horizons model

‘Three horizons’ is a futures technique I have used on many occasions with commercial and public sector organisations as a way to think about how the changing external environment could impact an organisation or a specific policy area. It’s helpful because it can free us up from existing preconceptions and encourage fresh thinking.

The horizons model (see the diagram below) works by exploring three different types of innovation in a system; in our case, the system is longevity. I have explored how different types of innovation come to the fore at different times – what we see around us now in terms of a dominant model, (sustaining innovation), what is experimental (disruptive innovation) and what are pockets of niche activity that might signal more profound, lasting change (transformative innovation). Horizon one (business as usual around us now) is explored first, followed by horizon three, as it will eventually become the new prevalent model. Horizon two is explored last, as it is a transitional phase between horizons one and three.


As the diagram suggests:

  • The first horizon represents ‘life as we currently know it’ and is the dominant current pattern. As the world evolves, aspects of this model start to seem less effective or no longer fit for purpose. (Think, for example, of steam trains or landline phones). More effective ways of operating will eventually take the place of the way horizon one functions.

  • The third horizon will eventually be the new “business as usual” pattern of operating, growing from its current niche to introduce new ways of doing things which are far better suited to the new world we are starting to see emerge. It can take real vision and a different mindset to imagine and develop these new systems – for example, think of the visionary Elon Musk, who has re-imagined systems in card payments, electric vehicles, and now in space travel and other fields too.

  • The second horizon is a series of disruptions, innovations and transitions – experiments in response to the way the world is changing before we know what might emerge as the dominant horizon three way of operating. For example, electric or hydrogen buses are a horizon two model that prefigures change in the transport system, but is self-contained; horizon three is a world in which all vehicles are electric.

When I consider what the horizons model might mean for our extended lives it starts to get really interesting! Thinking about the horizons of longevity:

Horizon one represents the three stage life that we are so familiar with – education, career and then retirement. It is deeply ingrained in many societies and has served us well for many years. However, we already know that the three stage life is being challenged by people living longer, with a child born in the West today having a more than 50% chance of living to over 105 (see Gratton & Scott). The traditional model is coming under great strain as all three elements – education, career and retirement – buckle under the pressure of extended lives and what they mean. Looking at retirement first; it is apparent that our current financial model for pensions is no longer sustainable at the individual or societal level. In terms of career, an extended middle age provides more healthy years and therefore time for many people, who are seeking fulfilment and may want to keep working, start a business or study. Regarding education, if one has a more than 50% chance of living to over 105, a university degree taken at 18 is going to be insufficient to see one through a career in a rapidly evolving workplace.

It’s evident that horizon one of longevity – the three stage life – is increasingly unfit for purpose. (For more on this see my previous blog on the longevity landscape.

So, what might disrupt this long-standing operating model? What might eventually take its place?

Turning to horizon three, we need to look for pockets of the future in the present that might provide clues for what a completely different system might look like. There are some weak signals that point towards a different system, but which seem quite extreme or kooky to us right now, such as ‘superagers’ – who are breaking sprinting records at 86, enjoying a French literature class exclusively for 70+ year-olds, and so on. At the moment these still feel like rare examples and are a long way from what the norm will be for most people. But they perhaps point the way society might go – focusing more on fitness and ensuring our brains remain stimulated.

It is also becoming the norm to know individuals who haven’t retired at 65 and are working well into their 70s (perhaps willingly, perhaps less so). There are specialist recruiters that focus on those over 50 (for example, Skilled People) as many over this age seek to change career path, or start their own business in their 60s—something that would have been unheard of even a few years ago. In 2017, Barclays beat the Financial Services Compensation Scheme and Lloyds to win Business in the Community’s (BITC) The Championing of an Ageing Workforce Award for having grown its proportion of older apprentices from 4% to 20%. About 50,000 students across UK University campuses are aged 50 or over, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s (HESA) student record numbers for 2016-17. Stats like this are vividly brought to life when you read about Trina Dye, who was encouraged to return to College, aged 53, after her daughter sought encouragement on her behalf on Twitter; it generated 107,000 tweets of support and shared stories.

However, it seems to me that we are still far to the left of the time axis on the horizons model (the black vertical line on the diagram below indicates where I think we currently are).


We do not seem to have sufficient systems and structures in place that encourage alternative models to the three stage life at present. The third horizon represents a transformation in how we live our lives — a significantly different model or models for how we will pursue all elements of our lives over the course of a 100-year life. Careers, education, relationships and finances will all need to be re-imagined.

I believe that what will replace the three stage life will be something less linear, much more fluid but potentially also more divisive than what we have now. It will not be possible to characterise this new model in simple stages—instead what we are likely to see is a variety of interwoven, different models; bespoke routes through a 100-year life that individuals are crafting themselves in ways that they believe will best fit their lives and suit their needs. We can expect to see individuals leaning in to different aspects of their lives (relationships, education and so on) at different stages in different ways. The stage in life to study, for example, will no longer come at 18 for most people who choose to do so; instead it will come at various points and in different forms, via different funding models, in order to ensure relevant skills throughout a longer life. In a horizon three world the redesign of the long-term savings market will have replaced our current pensions system.

I fear also that horizon three will be distinguished by an increasing divide between those who are in a position to shape their own longer lives and those for whom a longer life is characterised by poorer health outcomes, rising obesity and financial struggles. Those who are more motivated and are able to shape their own path will require less government support in order to do so. Governments are notoriously short termist and therefore it seems likely that for a sizeable proportion of people the required support and changes will not come in sufficient time to help them transition. By starting to think about these issues now, perhaps we can alleviate this likelihood and ensure horizon three is a desirable and more inclusive place for everyone in society.

If horizon three is represented by small scale pockets of the future in the present that may seem bizarre or strange to us now, then horizon two represents larger scale, structural change, typically from more established actors such as governments and corporations. One horizon two indicator—because it was enacted by the government, and was therefore an institutional change—was the abolition of the default retirement age in the UK in 2011.

The journey to horizon three

If horizon three represents the future of longevity, how do we anticipate getting there? It will likely involve a great deal of change to many aspects of our world. It’s important we don’t reject what’s going on now – the three stage life is still going to be with us for a long time, even as it becomes less and less fit for purpose. The journey to horizon three will almost certainly be messy and it’s therefore important that we maintain a balanced perspective and don’t start to label horizon one as ‘bad’ and horizon three as the answer to all our problems. As the International Future Forum (IFF) emphasises, “we need both to ‘keep the lights on’ today, and to find a way of keeping them on in the future in very different circumstances.” We are going to need to change a lot of things about the world and the way we live and work to get to the third horizon. Let’s think just briefly about four major areas – education, financial services, family structures and the workplace:

  • The education system – universities and higher education establishments will need to rethink who studies, how and when they do it, along with appropriate funding models.
  • Financial services – products, services and models of acquiring credit are firmly locked into horizon one models currently; true system change could be very difficult to achieve here.
  • Family structures – living for longer means the dynamics of our relationships will change. There is more possibility for two people in a relationship to ‘take turns’ in focusing on their careers or family; raising children will be a relatively smaller proportion of an adult’s life.
  • The workplace – governments will have to facilitate re-training, re-skilling and motivating a workforce that must adjust how it thinks about work over the course of a much longer life. Whole new careers are possible at the age of 60 or 70. Companies, too, will need to consider the needs of employees in their extended middle age, as well as the implications of this for the rest of the workforce. Organisations will need to encourage millennials up the career ladder while simultaneously supporting older workers.

There are likely to be catalysts that accelerate our journey to new horizons too; planned or not, welcome or not. For example, a significant change to the state pension age or a medical breakthrough in dementia treatment. It’s possible that some countries age in healthier ways than others, which could mean that horizons start to look very different across the world.

If this all sounds theoretical, it’s worth remembering that these are all things that are happening around us today, and indeed we have some ability to shape them too. For example, we can start to think afresh about the choices we are making in our career and our finances – thinking over the longer term and with a mindset that no longer assumes a three stage life. We can also work hard to keep our preconceptions about older age in check and support those whom are making third horizon choices in the present.

I hope that by exploring three horizons of longevity we can have some parameters and common language around longevity, how it may unfold, and our vision for horizon three. I would love to see examples of horizon three systems and horizon two ways of living so please do share them in response to this article. Perhaps we are further along on this journey than I think. And, for your gran’s next Christmas present, it might be time to consider whether she’d prefer a session with a personal trainer rather than slippers?

I am leading on longevity research at Message House to help our clients explore its implications. I will continue to share ideas and evidence in future posts.

Further reading:

  • The International Futures Forum’s useful work on three horizons can be found here: and their graphs are reproduced with thanks. also has valuable material
  • ‘Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope’, by Bill Sharpe (IFF Member), Triarchy Press, 2013
  • ‘The 100 Year Life’, by Lynda Gratton & Andrew Scott, Bloomsbury, London 2017
  • To keep fit and healthy in your extended middle age check out LAGOM personal training on Facebook