- Reductions in infant mortality, advances in sanitation and medicine, public education, and rising standards of living have brought forth a new era of longevity.
- Our social institutions, economic policies, and social norms haven’t evolved to keep up with these rapid changes.
- Martha Deevy explains why we need to start redesigning institutions, practices, and norms to align with today’s reality of a 100-year lifespan.
We often conflate ageing society narratives with a crisis scenario – an economy engulfed by a “grey tsunami”. The insolvency of social security and pension funds that may dry up before lives end, are some of the fears propagated by some. These static views live on the outdated assumption that older adults drag down economic productivity and drain societal resources.
We can challenge this notion by adopting a forward-looking longevity perspective on the economic potential of an age-diverse population. This may be one where we see that older adults can contribute in more meaningful, significant, and measurable ways to social good and economic progress. By laying the groundwork for a society that is healthier and more equitable, we can share in the diversity of opportunities presented by healthy longevity across races, geographic regions, and socioeconomic status.
Realizing the opportunities of healthy longevity
Over the last 200 years, people in all countries in the world achieved impressive progress in health that led to increases in life expectancy. We are now entering an unprecedented era of long lives. Most children in the developed world born since 2000 can expect to live up to 100 years and beyond. The implications of the 100-year life for individuals, businesses, communities, and governments will be profound. Still, it is not their sole responsibility to reimagine a longevity-ready society – it is an all-hands, all-sector undertaking, requiring the best ideas from the private sector, government, medicine, academia, and philanthropy.
The Stanford Center on Longevity launched an initiative called The New Map of Life, believing that one of the most profound transformations of the human experience calls for equally momentous and creative changes in how we lead these 100-year lives. We spoke with Martha Deevy, Associate Director and Senior Research Scholar, Stanford Center on Longevity, about what needs to be done ahead of the current young becoming the future old – and how to make the most of the 30 extra years of life we'll have. Martha and her team of experts also contributed to the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform with their analysis on Ageing and Longevity.
Start focusing on longevity early
What motivated you to develop your expertise to focus on retirement readiness and longevity?
A significant part of my professional career was spent in financial services, starting in the early days of the internet and online trading. The internet presented a brand-new platform to engage investors. We spent a lot of time trying to get individuals to save more and prepare for financially secure futures. Some of our attempts worked, many didn’t. I retired to stay home with my infant, and when I was nearing 50, when “old age” seemed more real, I met Dr Laura Carstensen, a psychologist and the founder of the Stanford Center on Longevity. She wanted to create a Center to deal with real world issues about living long lives (not just ageing). She was hiring people from the “real-world”, outside of academia, to help inform the agenda.
Education happens early in life. People start their working careers in their early 20s, with some staying with the same employer until they retire at 65. This model may seem outdated to people who end up living a 100 years old. The Center aims to bring together multiple disciplines; including psychology, sociology, marketing, education, economics, finance, engineering, public policy, public health, and medicine. It examines how we should change to optimize our 100-year lives.
The science says that if you arrive at old age, but you're physically fit, financially secure, and mentally sharp, many old-age issues begin to fade away. So, from the very beginning, we've focused on mobility, cognitive fitness, and financial security.
Never before have so many generations been alive at the same time. What has led us to this point, and what opportunities does this bring to the global workforce?
Today’s story of longevity isn’t just about ageing adults. It’s really a story of babies. The dramatic increase in life expectancy happened essentially because fewer infants and young people were dying. In 1900, 25% of babies born in the US died before they turned five. Life expectancy has grown, mostly from saving the lives of babies. So too, we have public health programs, cleaner waterways, pasteurized milk, institutionalized waste collection systems, vaccinations, and public education. More young people have the opportunity to grow old and lead healthier lives.
The impact on the global workforce is profound but also not yet realized. Before, we would have three or four generations in the workforce. Now, we have five and even six generations in the workforce. While stereotypes of all generations abound, many aren't true. A growing body of research indicates that multigenerational workforces are more productive, see lower rates of employee turnover, have higher levels of employee satisfaction, and feel better about their employer. This is consistent with the literature about overall diversity in the workplace. There are economic benefits too - significant increases in GDP occur when people remain part of the workforce for longer.
Lifelong learning is key to longevity
Often ageing society narratives portray the later decades of life as a period marked by vulnerability and dependence. What is most misunderstood about this narrative, and what does taking a longevity perspective entail?
Traditionally, life moves from childhood to education to work to retirement. Longer lives allow us to extend all phases of life. We can create multiple paths that weave periods of education, work and caregiving across our life trajectory. Research shows that letting children “be children” for longer can have long-term health benefits.
Lifelong education is also a worthwhile endeavour. Longer lives will likely mean longer working lives and should include “on-ramps and off-ramps” between work, breaks and reskilling periods.
Medical advances and emerging technologies extending our life spans. Our social protection and retirement systems haven’t kept up with this though. What does retirement readiness mean and why is it important?
Retirement readiness refers to preparing for and being ready to be financially secure in retirement. This could be a period traditionally defined as leaving the workforce or, as is increasingly common, a period of working fewer and more flexible hours. This necessitates a plan and financial resources to provide for a desired standard of living.
This is becoming increasingly important, especially in the USA, with employers shifting from traditional pension plans (defined benefit) to employee contributed and voluntary plans (defined contribution plans). Workers, increasingly, need to be more self-reliant in preparing for retirement while preparing for more years spent as retirees. A fear, according to many experts, is that many retirees may live beyond their retirement income resources.
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Given the strong links among education, health, and longevity – how can lifelong learning build longevity-ready communities?
Living longer lives will likely lead to longer working lives as well. There is growing evidence that working longer than the traditional retirement age has health and longevity benefits. It is good for our health if we stay mentally, socially, and physically active for longer. Longer work lives will require retraining and reskilling. Employers and educators are seeing the importance of creating programs and environments to support this.
One initiative started at Dublin City University is the Age-Friendly University Global Network. This is a network of higher education institutions committed to being age friendly and age inclusive with their programs and policies.
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Actionable steps to improve longevity
To meet the challenges of ageing and longevity, what would be your advice to leaders in government, healthcare and insurance companies, to make the most of the 30 extra years of life?
- Provide access to prevention-oriented, quality healthcare services for all.
- Invest in high-quality childcare and early childhood education.
- See the value of a multi-generation population in communities and the workplace.
- Create incentives that encourage employers to hire and retain older workers.
- Encourage individuals to work longer and retire later.
- Create intergenerational engagement opportunities.
- Invest in “longevity ready” cities and communities, full of walkable spaces, green spaces, good public transport, spaces for intergenerational engagement, and ones that are resilient to climate change.