gift of time

and May 25, 2017

For much of human history, life was well described by Thomas Hobbes’ famous quote as ‘nasty, brutish and short.’ However, continued scientific, economic, and social progress over the centuries has raised living standards and life expectancy. Whilst these benefits have not been spread equally across countries, or even within countries, in general, life is now less nasty, less brutish, and certainly less short. The challenge now is to ensure that this progress continues in the face of growing longevity.

Over the last 200 years, best practice life expectancy has increased at a near constant rate of more than two years every decade. In 1900, life expectancy in India was 24 years, compared to 49 years in the US. By 1960, the US’s life expectancy had risen to 70 years while India’s had only risen to 41 years; the gap in longevity between these two nations was widening. However, as India’s economic success picked up, the gap narrowed. By 2014, India’s life expectancy was 67 years and the UN demographic forecasters estimate that this should increase at the rate of around two years every decade. India may start with a lower life expectancy than the US, but it is rising in much the same way. In many countries around the word, the same is true—the 100 year-life is becoming a global phenomenon.

What does this extending arc of life mean for people, and how can government best respond? In many countries, the main focus of governments is on dealing with ageing and end-of-life issues such as pensions and healthcare. But longevity is not just about ageing—it has crucial implications for all ages. Already people are marrying and having children later, creating mid-career breaks, taking time out to explore, building their own businesses, going back to education. This is already leading to a redefinition of age—how many times have you heard that 70 is the new 60, or 40 the new 30?

working longer

Those who live up to a 100 years have around 100,000 extra productive hours than those who live up to 70. Undoubtedly, work will take a significant portion of these extra hours. Historically, low interest rates and growing longevity are destroying the inadequate provision societies have made for future pension support. Unless people are prepared to save more, the inevitable consequence is they will have to work longer. Simple calculation suggests that given the current level of household savings in many countries, those aged 20 today are likely to be working into their late 70s or even early 80s and those in their mid 40s into their early or mid 70s. We need to create a world where this is feasible and beneficial—a way that makes a longer life a blessing and not a curse.

the end of the three-stage life

However, this is not just about working longer—the broader challenge is how to restructure social and working lives to make best use of these extra hours. The life structure that emerged in the twentieth century—a threestage life of education, work and then, retirement—is unlikely to survive this elongation. How can you maintain and build productive assets when most education takes place in your 20s? How can what you have learnt remain relevant over the next 60 years against the backdrop of technological upheaval and industrial transformation? There is also the question of vitality. Whilst an unbroken extended working life may solve the financial challenge of longevity, it will inevitably deplete other important assets of life such as health and friendships.

A way around this is a multi-stage life, made up of different stages with transitions and breaks in between. In one stage the focus may be on accumulating financial assets, in another on creating a better work-life balance. Sometimes the switches will be driven by personal choice, at other times forced by technological obsolescence. These multi-stage lives require a proficiency in managing transitions and reflexivity—imagining possible selves, thinking about the future, re-skilling, and building new and diverse networks. At its best, it offers people an opportunity to explore who they are and arrive at a way of living that is nearer to their own personal values. Might it be this growing realization of longevity that is behind many of the often-stated claims about how ‘millennials have different values and attitudes towards previous generations?

the end of age segmentation

Take a look around most workplaces and you will see clear signs of ‘age segmentation’—people within the same age group spend most of their working day with each other. The clear-cut three stages inadvertently strengthen the boundaries between age groups. If you are 20, then you are likely to be in college; in your 30s, you are probably working full-time; and at 65, you will be retired.

There are a few advantages of age segmentation, and many disadvantages. When people mainly interact with their own age group they tend to stereotype other ages— they simply do not see the variety within other age groups and instead use simple concepts to describe them. They also fail to develop cross-generational friendships that can be such a source of knowledge and support.

But this will change and it is likely to change first at work.

People try out new ways of living and working—be it building their own business, exploring, or creating a portfolio of tasks and activities. These new stages will be ‘age agnostic’. Right now, it is mainly youngsters who are taking time to explore through their ‘gap year’, but rapidly it will be other age groups—40-year-olds taking time to recuperate, 50-year-olds learning a new skill, 60-year-olds travelling the world, 70-year-olds going back to fulltime education. Similarly, people of any working age will build their own business, or create a portfolio. And as people of many ages engage in the same activity the benefits of being ‘age agnostic’ will be really felt. It is hard to stereotype what a 70-year-old is like when you are travelling with them exploring the world, or what a 20-year-old is like when you are building a business with them.

This dissolving of stereotyping is all for the good, but there is more. Different ages inevitably have their own unique profile of insights and experiences. When they begin to meet each other as equals, this knowledge is more likely to flow between them to the advantage of everyone. Breaking the silos of age will happen fast and it will be good for everyone.