Health and Healthcare Systems

Talk to your 80-year-old self, and other tips for the 100-year life

A group of elderly people sit on a bench near a fountain in a park in Nice, France, March 30, 2016.

"A 100-year life will create many challenges for society and our institutions." Image: REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

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

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

We believe increasing longevity is leading to a fundamental re-design of work and life. In The 100 Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, our headline-grabbing calculation was that those who live to a 100 (as many people will) will be working into their late 70s or early 80s unless they save more than 10% of their income a year.

We also showed that a longer good life requires continuous investment in both tangible and intangible assets. Tangible assets are based around finances and have been the main focus of most discussions about longevity. However, equally important are intangible assets such as skills and knowledge, health and friendships, and the ability to navigate change.

Existing social norms and institutions may have worked well to maintain tangible and intangible assets over a life of 70 to 80 years - but are proving to be wholly inadequate when lifespans are extended. As life becomes a marathon rather than a sprint for many, new stages of life and new sequences should emerge as people experiment to combine all the elements they need to live well. Without this redesign, we are storing up real problems for our later years.

We built a diagnostic tool to help people take stock of their various assets. More than 10,000 people shared their perceptions of how they are using their discretionary time to invest in their intangible assets – becoming more skilled, healthier and broader in their perspectives. Making good use of our free time is crucial for re-creation - not simply recreation. The results showed just how hard many people find putting time aside to do the stuff they know to be important for the long-term.

This of course is not a new problem. The limited human capacity to defer immediate gratification is well documented and reflects thousands of years of evolution. However, whilst this challenge is long-standing, the cost of this failure is set to increase, in part because our evolutionary instincts have developed to support much shorter life expectancies than future generations are likely to experience.

What can be done to help improve their self control? Here are four ideas that we find help people prepare better for a long life:

Talk to your 80-year-old-self

The Saturday edition of the Financial Times carries a personal profile in which a famous person is asked “What would your 20-year-old-self say about you now?”. The trick is to reverse the direction and ask “What would your 100-year old self think of you now”? Can you be sure that the decisions you are making now will stand up to the scrutiny of your future self?

Invent your possible selves

The challenge, however, is that most people make poor choices about what their future selves could need. So whilst the 100 -year-old self is a useful narrative device, we need to do more than this. Thinking about the future can be tough as we have difficulty imagining ways of life that we’ve never experienced. A way to get around this is to consider “possible selves”. For example, with our MBA students we ask each one to draw a timeline from now to the age of 100 and describe the stages of life they want to experience. They then share these timelines of their possible selves – so as to hear how others are thinking about the future and begin to imagine better their own possible selves.

Consider options, searches and matches

There is no doubt that over a long life you will be presented with many choices and decisions: which job to take, which career path to pursue, who to choose as a partner, etc. So one of the aspects of thinking about a long life is being prepared to defer making a decision and spending more time exploring options. That is because the value of finding an optimal match - either in terms of lifestyle, career or marriage – is greater with a long life and, of course, the costs of a bad early commitment are also greater.

Think flexibility and reorientation

Planning for a long life during a time of profound technological transformation is ridiculously complex. Even the most sophisticated of futurists cannot with any reliability predict what sort of jobs and skills will be valuable in 10 years’ time. So it’s easy to see why we might be paralyzed into inertia. But consider the words of the American novelist Paul Auster: “If you are not ready for everything, you are not ready for anything.” That means being more flexible and more aware that at some later date you may have to orientate and reinvest. A great way of thinking about this is “routine busting” – being prepared to change long held habits and behaviours.

We must overcome deeply ingrained tendencies towards short-termism. We already know that those who are more patient and invest for the long term do better than those who don’t. If we live longer lives might we not become more patient and far-sighted? If a year represents a smaller proportion of our life - might we not look further into the future than before?

A 100-year life will create many challenges for society and our institutions. The greatest challenge however will be in how we mentally overcome the tension between lifespans much greater than our mental software has evolved to support.

Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott are Professors at London Business School and the authors of “The 100 Year Life – Living and Working in an Age of Longevity”, 2016, Bloomsbury Press.

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