Health and Healthcare Systems

What happens when we all live to be 100?

Lynda Gratton
Professor of Management Practice, London Business School
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Ageing and Longevity

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

With predictions that in the coming decades, centurions will become the norm rather than the exception, it was no surprise that longevity was an emerging theme in Davos a few weeks back.

I was at the meeting, where I both led a workshop on the ‘100 Year Life’ and participated in a panel on prosperity in the age of longevity. I came away from both feeling heartened – but also ever more aware of the crucial need for both short-term and long-term planning and actions.

Celebrating longevity

There is no doubt that we are facing an unprecedented opportunity. Society will have more people over the age of 70 and all the accumulated wisdom they bring. As Linda Fried, Dean of Public Health at Columbia University, said in her opening remarks at the workshop, “Imagine what a long life spent in good health will unlock – it unlocks the opportunity to work, to fulfil individual goals and to make an impact as an older adult.”

When four or even five generations are alive together, that creates a wonderful opportunity for intergenerational collaboration and cohesion. Listening to the deep wisdom of Henry Kissinger (aged 93), as he addressed a packed conference hall on the arc of history, reminded me how important this wisdom can be at times of anxiety and disappointments. And as panellist David Agus, Professor of Medicine and Engineering at University of Southern California, reminded us, brains with 40 years of accumulated experience are an asset, not a liability.

Encouraging the over 60s to work

Healthy longevity means retiring retirement. In fact, as Andrew Scott and I calculated, in a world of centurions, working into your 80s will be the norm.

Jo Ann Jenkins is the Chief Executive Officer of AARP, which has 38 million members in the USA. Addressing the workshop, she reported that many of these older people want to work longer and want to question what it means to age. As she so poignantly says “70 is not the new 50” – it is completely different in terms of experience, wisdom and insight.

Supporting long working lives has important implications for government, as panellist William Morneau, the Canadian Minister of Finance, pointed out. Canadian policy is focusing on supporting lifelong learning through re-training while deepening people’s understanding of the labour market and what jobs are likely to be available now and in the future. As the benefits of long working lives are becoming clearer, these types of policies will be crucial.

In the same workshop, David Agus referred to studies showing that every additional year you stay at work past the age of 60, your chances of getting Alzheimer’s reduces by 3%. In a country like the USA, where healthcare costs are currently running at 17% of corporate spend, this is vital. Moreover, for corporations the productivity and creativity benefits of cross-age working groups is well documented.

Realizing that individualism is not the answer

Yet these long lives are not lived in isolation. And as David Agus pointed out, all the evidence suggests that connectedness strengthens health, while isolation reduces vitality.

Over long lives, strong, positive, enduring relationships are crucial, as is the framework of the family. In a world of increasing individualism, it’s important to remember the value of interdependencies.

As Babatunde Osotimehin from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reminded us, though, family structures are declining and there is a deprioritizing in our lives of relationships and of nurturing roles.

Tackling longevity inequality

Many people spoke of the need to address the inequalities of longevity – right now in developed countries, the rich are living on average 12 years longer than the poor. How can longevity be an opportunity for everyone, regardless of their circumstances?

For William Morneau, this is a top priority for the Canadian government – how to support vitality, address the pension crisis and encourage people to work by both supporting people to work for longer, and reducing the anxiety they feel about getting older on a low income. That is why Canada have pushed through a number of pension reforms.

Making the case for action

Whose responsibility is the challenges of longevity? In both workshop and panel, the view was that it starts with the way people choose to live their own lives. As Babatunde Osotimehin reflected, our health is currently driven by commerce and business, but it should be driven by the individual. He believes we should all get back to basics and become aware of our own potential. This self-determination was echoed by Lin Kobayashi, Head of the International School of Asia. Thinking about lifelong learning, this is her mantra: take personal responsibility; set an agenda to take action (even in the face of discomfort); and find a way of living that brings passion and purpose.

Taking action can also start with a “nudge”. Yasuhiro Sato, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Mizuho Financial Group in Japan, described how his company has launched a project which gives employees an opportunity to measure their exercise and be rewarded by community coupons when they increase their exercise rate.

We all agreed that it is crucial that society, governments and corporations move fast and find innovative solutions. Governments must address the pension crisis and the anxieties around a fast evolving labour market; corporations must drop age stereotypes and foster the flexibility that enables people to contribute at any stage in their life; and civil society must support stronger families, neighbourhoods and communities. Beth Noveck, who directs the Governance Lab at Yale University, believes that policy change and action is more likely to take place when human ingenuity is combined with large data sets. Her emphasis is on testing and failing faster. For example, she has worked on a policy development initiative over six weeks with 200 people in an online environment, building both agility and diversity.

Crucially, we all need to create conversations across stakeholders and across the generations. The community at Davos was a good place to start the 2017 conversation.

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