Over the last 150 years, best practice life expectancy (defined as the country with the highest average life expectancy at any moment in time) has increased at the rate of 2 to 3 years every decade. If that rate of increase continues then 50% of UK children born in 2007 will live to 104 or more. Even if the rate of improvement slows, it is still the case that for many children born today planning for a 100 year life is a real possibility.
There is a host of scientific questions around future longevity trends – will medical science continue to increase life expectancy at the same rate? Are we on the threshold of fantastic progress in defeating ageing? As we improve mortality what about morbidity and issues around the rising prevalence of Alzheimer’s? However, whilst these scientific questions have tended to dominate discussion the growing improvements in longevity and morbidity raise equally important issues for the social sciences.
As we live for longer we have more time. How should we use and structure this time to best effect? What should we as individuals do to reshape our lives in response to the prospect of a 100 year life? The twentieth century saw the creation of a three-stage life: education, work and retirement. It also saw the creation of a five-day working week. Longevity, both at the individual and societal level, will require a similar transformation of how we structure our life and use our time. Individuals, corporates and governments are set to embark on fundamental changes which go way beyond merely shifting the parameters of a three-stage life, such as retirement age and pension ratios.
The 100 year life
In my book with Lynda Gratton we outline a framework to think at a personal level about how to support a longer life. At the heart of this framework is a need to invest in four key assets. The first of these is the most obvious – a longer life will require you to save more or work longer in order to secure sufficient financial assets. Given realistic assumptions about savings rates and historical rates of return, in order to achieve a pension worth 50% of final salary those in their mid-40s will likely have to work into their early 70s whilst today’s 18-year-olds are probably looking at working into their late 70s. Given this, it is not surprising that we are seeing more and more people over 65 at work. Having declined throughout the 20th century we are now seeing employment rates for the over 65s and over 70s rise and show every sign of continuing to do so.
Whilst working for longer helps secure financial assets, over a 100 year life it creates an imbalance in the other three key assets. These three represent intangible assets and reflect productivity, vitality and transformational abilities. Productive assets include skills and knowledge; vitality assets reflect mental and physical health as well as close friendships, whilst transformational assets reflect the ability to change and shift over a longer life. If all we do in response to longevity is to expand the second stage of life and work for longer, this will take care of financial assets, however, it will do little for your intangible assets. The skills and knowledge you learnt at 21 will not last into your 70s and your health, mental well-being and relationships will suffer from a 60-year career. The three-stage life of education, work and then retirement was developed to support a 70-year life. It cannot be easily stretched to cover a 100 year life. The second working stage of life repeatedly scores poorly in terms of life satisfaction. If a 100 year life requires a 60-year career as its second stage then living for longer seems more of a curse than an opportunity.
It is for this reason that we believe that a longer life will see an increasing shift towards a multi-stage life. Whilst we may be required to work into our late 70s what our careers will look like will be different, either because technology replaces our jobs, or because firms fire us or because we seek new challenges and opportunities. We believe that people will switch to a multiple career perspective. Each career stage may be different in terms of the sector involved or the role played, it may differ in terms of motivation i.e. financial or social purpose, and will differ in terms of a trade-off between finances and leisure.
In financial theory, options become more valuable the longer the period over which they can be exercised. As a result, as life lengthens options become more valuable. This is perhaps one reason why we are seeing shifts in the behaviour of those in their 20s. The age at which the full range of adult responsibilities – such as getting married, having children, buying a house, have all increased substantially. Whilst undoubtedly this is also due to negative economic factors (high house prices, student debt and restricted employment opportunities) it is also part of a much longer run trend connected to longevity.
We need to rewire our thinking and our cultural norms from ideas that certain numbers such as 18 or 65 should be linked with certain behaviours.
Similarly, longer lives require more transitions and being better at dealing with change. Evolutionary biologists talk about some species benefiting from neoteny – the preservation into adulthood of adolescent features – because adolescents deal with change better than adults. This argues in favour of juvenescence, or ageing young, and in effect “age inappropriate” behaviour. When the race extends from 10 to 15 miles you hit the milestones later – we need to rewire our thinking and our cultural norms from ideas that certain numbers such as 18 or 65 should be linked with certain behaviours.
Just as teenagers and retirees emerged as new stages of life in the 20th century so new stages will emerge in the 21st. Social experimentation will be rife until new norms are established. New social roles will need to be found. For instance, as we live longer we will see the rise of four generation households. Which generation will be responsible for whom?
Firms are already beginning to redefine retirement, with the notion that everyone comes to a hard stop in terms of work at the same age already a fiction. However they will need to start being more systematic in these policies and offering options in terms of reduced roles, reduced salaries but reduced time commitments from which employees can choose. Firms will also have to change their workplace practices to cater for much greater variety in terms of working time shifts and time commitment and enable their production processes to have much greater substitutability between workers to accommodate this flexibility. An even bigger challenge is to unpick the role of age in influencing pay. If pay is linked too closely to age rather than productivity then firms will always retain younger workers which will mitigate against working for longer.
Financial markets are already struggling with pension provisions. As tax advantages are withdrawn, longevity increases and rates of return decline, the pension industry is seriously challenged. The very concept of pensions is based on a three-stage view of life. As life becomes multi-staged individuals will want access to their savings at various points in their life. Long-term savings will need to shift from focusing on pensions to focusing on lifetime savings.
Longevity also brings two new big risks. The first is uncertainty around the length of life. Looking at the UK and the ONS projections of life expectancy a child born in 2016 can expect to live anywhere between 81 and 107 years. Medical progress may extend that even further. Financial markets need to develop ways of insuring against these risks. The second new risk is around incapacity. As we live for longer the risk of being incapacitated young is now much greater. If I am to live to 100 but get Alzheimer’s at 50 then I need an insurance against these bad risk outcomes.
The agenda for governments is also correspondingly large. One of the acutest problems is around inequality. Life expectancy is not growing at the same rate for all and the gap between the rich and the poorest is getting larger. Income inequality can be tackled by redistributing income but you cannot redistribute years of life. Boosting life expectancy for the many has to be a major focus. Furthermore, the fact that life expectancy gains are not equally spread means great care has to be taken in raising the retirement age or we may end up abolishing retirement for many. The creation of a retirement age was one of the greatest social contributions of the 20th century and needs to be preserved.
Just as governments intervened in the 20th century to provide legislation around working time and working careers so too this needs to be updated for the 21st century. As workers go through a multi-stage life the concept of being employed will shift and change. Workers rights will need to be defined for a continuum of workers from part time to full time. As people craft different sequences for their multi-stage life the age-specific features of legislation based on a 70-year life will need to be altered to provide lifetime flexibility.
Longevity means that on average we are living longer and are healthier for longer. We have more time. Much of how we structure time is a social convention supported by social norms to provide good outcomes. As life extends we need to rewire time and our social institutions. The process has begun but will take decades to complete as we find out how best to support such long lives. Whilst science has to date taken the lead in issues around longevity it is the social sciences who have perhaps the more immediate and urgent agenda.
The opinions in The Freethink Tank’s Opinion category are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.