• David Sinclair, Director, International Longevity Centre, says the world's ageing population will change everything from cities, transport and consumption to relations between countries.
  • Ageing can be harnessed to be positive for societies and economies, but innovation must consider education, health equality, loneliness and isolation and income.
  • This interview served as input for The Great Narrative, a new book by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret.

The world has been ageing for some time, according to David Sinclair, Director, International Longevity Centre, but policy has still not caught up to tackle the potential problems this may cause for the world.

He says that an ageing population will have an impact on the future like at no other time in history and will change everything from cities, transport and consumption to relations between countries, and for that to be positive rapid policy changes are needed.

The below interview with David Sinclair served as one of 50 inputs from global thought leaders for The Great Narrative, the new book by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret that describes how we can create a more resilient, inclusive and sustainable future post-COVID-19.

Do you have anything to share with us about yourself that we won’t find on the web?

I’ve worked in ageing and ageing policy for about 20 years – that’s the LinkedIn version.

When I started working, I used to work for an older persons’ organization. Older people said I was too young to work in ageing but, when my hair turned grey, they didn’t say that anymore (I’ve had a mid-life COVID-19 crisis and have gone red to tackle that challenge).

I’m very passionate about active travel, involved with the local Parkrun and cycling group and volunteered to join the Olympics in 2012. It was a fascinating insight because I spent two weeks looking at politicians, heads of state and royal families to see how the other world works.

And how does it work?

It works remarkably efficiently from their point of view, and it’s striking how organized it is. You’d get a call three minutes before, saying that Prince William and Kate are two and half minutes late. You’d spend the entire day before checking where they will walk, who they’re going to meet – it’s remarkable how well planned and organized the whole thing is.

What’s interesting also is the VIPs, such as Tony Blair and John Major; I met some really interesting people during the short time of the Olympics. It shows we’re all humans; they find it a drag, too, that their security people say they can’t say hello to a person.

An ageing world changes everything

You’re known as someone who has been working on longevity and how it should be addressed. If you had to distil everything you’ve been doing, what would be your main, big idea?

The world is ageing, but this will have major social and economic impact, much more than in the past. The argument that hasn’t been well played out, and organizations like the World Economic Forum are starting to think about this, is that there is a major opportunity to be grasped from ageing.

It will change the world – where we live, and not just the houses but the streets we play in, and the jobs we do. And alongside it, technology will speed up the changes, and over the next five years, things like e-bikes and last-mile travel will transform how our towns and cities look.

On the one hand, we’ve got ageing and people starting to struggle to get around; and also COVID-19, which means people won’t necessarily be going into cities as much; and these interesting innovations in last-mile travel. I suspect the big demand for e-bikes will come from older people, and that will play a role in how our cities will look.

Help us understand what an ageing world will look like from an economic and societal view, in terms of relations between countries, standards of living and consumption – it will change everything, right?

The combination of climate change, global conflict, fears and opportunities around technology and ageing present a scary world for many people. Climate change and ageing are long-term challenges with very little short-term benefit for politicians, so people have found it difficult to innovate and change.

Technology moves quickly, but societal and policy changes don’t. I remember that before Donald Trump won the American presidential election, an interesting website from a group of over-100-year-old women, a homemade one, said we’ve waited 100 years for a woman president, and, of course, they’re still waiting. Certain things take a long time.

A good example of that is ageing. We’ve been ageing for over 300 years. Most of the West has been ageing far too slowly, and as a result, policy has been slow to adapt.

We’ve had the frog-in-warm-water parable: if you put a frog in warm water, it sits and waits to boil to death, whereas if you put it in boiling water, it jumps out. What’s changing now is that ageing is increasingly global; it’s no longer just for the United Kingdom, France, northern Europe, the United States and other places. Singapore and Korea are ageing in 40 years in the way that the United Kingdom and France were ageing over 300 years.

So, there’s a political imperative to tackle the challenges, and that means some of the innovation won’t come from western or northern Europe. Economic opportunities in some of the younger countries, like Nigeria, with big working-age populations, will be interesting to watch. Some new global powers could start to develop if they could invest in healthcare systems.

In the main, the technology is moving quicker and quicker yet we’re slow at adapting to ageing. Because cities are a global issue and tie into climate change and innovation, we’ll see a step change over the next decade or so.

The Great Narrative by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret
The Great Narrative by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret
Image: Forum Publishing

Which parts of the world aren’t ageing? Only India and Africa?

In India, it’s interesting to see the big growth of the population aged 80 and over and for China as well. Where a difference across the world exists is that in places like Europe and the United Kingdom, welfare systems were developed when those areas had a young population, but China and India have to develop welfare states while their populations are already starting to age. Economically, that’s very difficult to do.

Nigeria and some of the African countries are still relatively young. Over the next 40 to 50 years, we’re going to see populations start to decline. Work in The Lancet suggests that populations will begin to fall across big parts of the world in the 2050s, but alongside that, we’re living much longer. In the future, countries will have much smaller populations but older populations, and the challenge for governments is how to make that work economically and socially.

Ageing population can be an opportunity

And very often, when you ask economists what ageing is about, opinions are divided: it’s an opportunity or a danger. What’s your view?

Looking at the recent European Union ageing report, the Australian intergenerational report and one on UK fiscal sustainability, it all turned from “ageing is going to be a problem” to “it’s actually manageable.” If we work a little bit longer, if we focus on the positive opportunities of ageing, we needn’t be as scared as they thought we were going to be.

Economists haven’t thought enough about this – that with a strong, older population that continues to work longer, a healthier older population works for longer and they spend more, care more and volunteer more. The challenge is how to get there. I think we’ll start to see a step change in that area.

The future of retirement will be fascinating because we might discover that the last 30 to 40 years of retirement in the West will be an outlier in the long run. There was a fortunate turn of events with high growth and a growing younger population, where you could afford to let people work from the age of 20 to 55 and then give them a decent pension at the end of it.

It’s hard to see any way of having a sustainable economy on 1.5% or 2% growth in the future, where people are potentially working for 30 to 35 years and not working for 50+ years.

Economically, it feels really difficult to balance that out. People used to work longer. Currently, in the United Kingdom, a million people over 65 years old are working; in the 1960s, a higher proportion of men worked after the age of 65 than do now.

Work hasn’t gotten harder. In fact, huge mistakes were made in the late 1980s and the 1990s, forcing people out of work too early with the belief that older people prevented younger ones from getting jobs. Large parts of Europe now have massive skills shortages.

From Hong Kong to the United Kingdom, we don’t have enough healthcare workers – indeed almost anywhere in the world – and have massive skills shortages. We’ve incentivized people to leave the workforce too early. At least we’re starting to realize this now.

Health inequalities need to be reducing, not increasing, and more concentration is needed on how to make the most of the economic opportunities.

—David Sinclair, Director, International Longevity Centre

What are the main measures required for society to age gracefully and successfully, besides education and healthcare

In many places around the world, we’re not ageing very well. We spend more time at home as we get older, and TV and being alone is the main source of activity.

First, we’ve got to address the issues around isolation and participation in society, that’s really core. Second, there’s income. At the same time, we must design policies to meet our needs for income across our lives; things are getting worse with the end of final salary pensions, so you’re likely to see increases in pension poverty.

Third, a successful ageing society doesn’t have the health inequalities we see now. COVID-19 has shined a light on that because, despite improvements in health and health innovation, we’re seeing health inequalities growing, not falling, across the world, and that’s a major challenge in the concept of ageing.

Good work is important in ageing and there’s a strong relationship between a grey and a green New Deal. Not only are too many forced out of work too early – in the United Kingdom, about 1.4 million people are forced out before their time, with resulting skills shortages occurring – but tied to this is that the wrong sorts of jobs are being created.

Economies have jobs that people don’t want to do, or not enough people want to do, and are creating bs jobs with no meaning or value.

Lastly, we must be sure welfare states can support a 100-year life and can engage companies to better recognize older consumers.

In short, we have to address isolation and participation across our lives, from the very young to the very old, and public policies need to help ensure pension poverty isn’t inevitable.

Health inequalities need to be reducing, not increasing, and more concentration is needed on how to make the most of the economic opportunities. How to focus on the workspace (supporting good-quality work for longer). How to support companies to better engage with this market? And, from a government point of view, how to ensure welfare states can sustainably afford older populations.

Living better and longer

From that perspective, which countries do best in the world?

People always look to Scandinavia. They say Japan is interesting, but it has major economic challenges. While the country has a nice model of engaging older people, it has significant problems with isolation and loneliness among younger people.

Some countries are starting to do bits well; Canada, for example, has an interesting pension system that includes state and private provision. Governments are beginning to look at how to address the welfare-state area. The private sector is an undervalued opportunity, and perhaps this highlights the weakness of the nation-state in some respects, as some challenges are global.

I can’t point to one country that has managed to support people to work longer, tackled health inequalities, or created exciting cities that work for people of all ages. I don’t think we’re there at all almost anywhere, but I hope and think that over the next 20 years, things will change.

Can you share with us more generally what you feel optimistic about for tomorrow’s world? What could be a positive narrative? Of course, you’re longevity-biased.

I remember in Barack Obama’s book; the first line was something about if you had to choose a moment in history to be born, you’d choose now.

When you talk to older people born after the First World War, one gets the feeling that, despite climate change and conflict, that it was really, really tough. And there are now exciting opportunities, whether they be through the internet, through global migration and some of the really exciting opportunities the come from understanding the world better.

It was a positive starting point of the narrative that it’s all really, really bad and terrible: well, maybe it’s not. The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic helped create the National Health Service; the Great Depression and the Second World War helped set the stage for the modern welfare state; and we’re probably at another turning point as a result of COVID-19.

We’ll absolutely see change. We’re absolutely going to invest in health and especially preventative health in the future and we’ll value it better; we’ll support work and good jobs and invest in lifelong learning; and we’ll unlock opportunities to tap into older people’s powers and as consumers. Our towns will be transformed and work better for people old and young alike.

Active travel works in terms of longevity; physical activity works, and one of the ways to get people to be more physically active is through active travel. This growing movement is looking at the 15-minute city: how people get everything they need within 15 minutes of where they live. And the next thing will be, what do we need that’s one minute from our homes? In addition, optimism would also be slightly less reliance on cars around the world and it’s an exciting opportunity for cities in the future.

So physical movement is essential.

Yes. We need to live better, not longer, and tackle those inequalities. All ages can work together. As populations age, we might even see less conflict, as much global conflict is driven in countries with very young populations, and we might see that global conflict starts to fall as well.

This interview served as input for The Great Narrative, the new book by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret that encapsulates the Davos Vision, and explores how we can shape a constructive, common narrative for the future.

The book is on sale now on Amazon. You can order a Kindle or paperback copy in the Amazon.com, Amazon.fr, Amazon.de, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, Amazon.com.au and any Amazon store around the world. It is the second instalment in The Great Reset series.