How Long Will You Live?
When you’re young, you feel like you will live forever.
Soon enough, you realize that time is both fleeting and speeding by at a faster pace with each passing year.
Living to age 100 was once incredibly rare. When I was a teenager, I regularly visited a local nursing home, and it seemed most were in their 80s. Today, I know many people in their 80s and even 90s not only living on their own, but thriving, going to exercise classes, and even still driving.
100 just doesn’t seem impossible anymore.
Turns out, it’s not only possible, but now so common that it’s changing everything from the way we think and plan our lives.
Written by two professors from the London Business School, The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, explores the implications of living much longer than we ever expected.
Here’s one statistic the authors shared with me that shocked me:
Written by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, this book is full of surprising statistics and the implications for all of us. I recently spoke with author Andrew Scott, Professor of Economics at the London Business School about their new work:
The Implications of the 100-Year Life
You open your book, The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, with compelling statistics and proof. We are living longer and the implications are sweeping. Are we in the age of longevity? What are some of the more obvious implications?
It’s well known that we are living longer, and there are more old people. However there is less understanding that there is strong evidence that each generation is living longer than the previous and is in general healthier for longer. Life expectancy has been increasing by about 2-3 years every decade for the last 200 years. That means that each generation lives around 6-9 years longer than the previous generation. There are major debates about how long and at what rate this can continue, but the signs are that best practice life expectancy is continuing to increase.
In our view people mistakenly take the fact that we are living for longer to mean that we are older for longer. They focus more on aging than longevity. However longevity means we have more years of life and will restructure our life accordingly. Many of our economic, financial and social patterns of behavior are based on an outdated view of life expectancy of around 70. We need to restructure to account for the likely possibility of a 100 year life.
With a long life we will see the end of the dominant model of a three stage life of education, work and retirement. Just as the twentieth century saw the emergence of new stages such as teenagers and retirees, so longevity will bring about whole new stages of life. Further in a multi-stage life, lockstep comes to an end. There is only one way to structure a three stage life – education, then work and retirement. There are many ways to structure a multi-stage life, so we will see the end of a strong link between age and stage. In the future you could be an undergraduate and be 20, 40 or 60. You could be a senior manager and be 30, 50 or 70. To support this multi stage life we will, and are already, seeing changes in how society structures itself. When life extends you reach previous milestones (such as marriage, having children, etc.) at different times, and ages are redefined.
Work-life balance may become more important. What’s emotional spillover and how do we positively impact it?
If you take a 100 year life seriously and calculate how much you need to save for a pension, it’s likely that people will have to work in some form into their late 70s. This is why we think a three stage life can’t survive as it involves a 60 year career. While working for 60 years may solve your financial problems, it does nothing to solve the deeper issues. We emphasize that living a good life requires investing in intangible assets – productive assets such as skills and knowledge, vitality assets such as health and friendships, and—of growing importance—transformational assets, the ability to deal with change and transitions. While working for longer solves your financial problems, it means your productive, vitality and transformational assets are run into the ground. This is why we think a multi stage life with breaks and transitions is inevitable, with people spending time in between stages recuperating and rebuilding their strength and talents. A longer career also means that at some points you may well take on a traditional job where financial assets are your main focus but at other points you will seek jobs that better balance life and work.
Talk about education and how its value may change.
If working life extends over 60 years, it’s hard to think of any education you can learn at 20 that can last that long and remain that relevant. This is especially true if you believe the stories of technologists and the rise of Artificial Intelligence. Either because your industry becomes obsolete or because your knowledge becomes outdated, you will need to seriously reinvest in education at different stages later in life. Perhaps this education will in part be provided by traditional sources, but it is also likely that we will see new organizations develop to fill the gap.
It is an interesting question then what you should learn when young if you know that at some point this knowledge will become obsolete. One common sense prediction is that when young you learn how to learn, how to think creatively and critically, and how to evaluate from a broad-based disciplinary perspective. Then you may add to this with some detailed specific technical knowledge knowing, however, that in a decade or more this may become irrelevant.
Saving for the 100 Year Life
What are the implications for retirement? It seems daunting enough today to save with current lifespans.
As currently understood retirement is a product of three stage life thinking. It is already being undermined with a century long downward trend in those aged 65 staying on at work reversing itself. More and more people are either working past retirement or working after retirement.
In a multi-stage life you will need to prepare not just for eventual retirement but also for career breaks and career transitions, all of which will require financing. Lifetime planning will not just be about end of life planning.
Retirement will still exist, e.g. a time when you stop work, but it will occur later. At traditional retirement age you will see more varied behavior. Either people will choose to carry on in their existing roles and continue to earn if their skills and firm allow, or they will break and do something different. We are seeing a rise in entrepreneurship in people in their 60s. Becoming what we term “an independent producer” is an interesting option. In this stage of life you do something that blends work and fun together, earn just enough to cover your expenses and so keep your savings intact.
I found the Downton Abbey effect fascinating. Would you share more about this and its implications?
Over the last 100 years on average how many hours we spend at work has declined. However the average hides some interesting distributional issues. The rich now tend to work a lot more hours than they used to whereas the lower income groups work fewer hours. The families in Downton Abbey wouldn’t even have a concept of a weekend – for them life was one of leisure, and even if they worked it was invariably a half day. By contrast the staff in Downton Abbey would work very long hours and even live where they worked.
It isn’t clear why this reversal has occurred. There are many different explanations – when you get paid more, leisure becomes expensive so you work more. Perhaps it has to do with globalization and technology and the “always on” nature of work, or perhaps senior work involves more pleasure, so people put in more hours. Alternatively, how you achieve status has now changed, and the Downton Abbey world of leisure is not so status enhancing. Instead, to be so important, you always need to work.
The implications are strong for a 100 year life and also leisure. Working intense long hours for 60 years isn’t possible, so it should be a very distinct stage in life with a longer period of better work/life balance pursued. It’s also important to use leisure not just for recreation but for re-creation – learning new skills and building health for a longer life.
A Positive Perspective on Longevity
We badly need a positive perspective on longevity. Redesigning life to deal with a 100 year life expectancy requires change. Too much of the longevity debate quickly focuses on aging and Alzheimer’s. These are very real problems and need to be addressed, but on average we live for longer and are healthier for longer, and longevity is about redesigning all of life not just for the end of life. End of life still happens – longevity just means it happens later.
This is why in our book we are remorselessly positive. Not because we do not think there are challenges, but because governments and society will only engage in the required change if they see the potential opportunities.
There will be a major tussle between corporations and individuals. As individuals a multi-stage life requires more flexibility and more customization. This will run counter to firms’ desires for simplification and harmonization. However too much of our current working practices are a legacy from the Industrial Revolution and a 70 year old life.
Governments need to change a huge amount. Much of our legislation is based on a three stage life and life expectancy of 70 or 75 where the old lockstep process works and certain numbers, such as 65, have a key significance. In a multi-stage life with flexibility, people will do things at different times and so will need a more lifetime based approach to many issues rather than an age specific approach.
After all of your research did anything surprise you?
What surprised me? How a bunch of scientists are optimistic and convinced that we are on the verge of major breakthroughs in understanding aging and delaying it further. How the brain is a muscle which many believe is much more capable of maintaining itself than we previously thought. Above all the importance of flexibility and activity into old age as a key way of promoting longevity.
What warnings should we heed?
If we live for longer we have to plan for longer. Start thinking when you make decisions, “What would my 90 year old self like me to do?”
What is your hope for those reaching 100 and beyond?
Extra years of life should be a great gift. However, if we simply extend and stretch our existing institutions to deal with it, it will be a curse. We need to start a process of social experimentation to discover how to make the most of this wonderful gift.
The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity