What Will Life be Like When Millions Live Past 100?

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Education. Work. Retirement. That’s your life plan. It's a simple, three-stage model we have all learned to expect. But this model is rapidly becoming out of date.

For the last two centuries life expectancy has increased by more than two years every decade. In 2014, as many as 72,197 Americans were aged 100 or over. That's an increase of 44% since 2000.

This means individuals -- as well as companies and governments -- will have to start planning for much longer lives.

In their book The 100-Year Life, authors Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott are optimistic these extra years are a precious gift. But unless we take steps to prepare, plan ahead, and build support structures, the 100-year life could turn into a curse instead of a blessing.

Keep reading and I’ll tell you what I mean. . .

A Multi-Stage Life

A major theme of The 100-Year Life is the restructuring of time as a response to living longer.

Instead of a three-stage life we will need a more flexible multi-stage life that may involve more than one career, with breaks and transitions in between. Life could have seven or eight stages involving lots of choices and options.

The implications for your career and finances are huge. But I’ll get to those in a moment. First let’s consider what a long life span will mean for the things money can’t buy. . .

Maintain Your “Intangibles”

A key theme of The 100-Year Life relates to intangible factors such as a supportive family, friendships and good physical and mental health.

The authors believe these should be thought of as assets because they provide a flow of benefits over time. It's important to invest in them and nurture them -- otherwise they could disappear.

Fitness and health are key components because a multi-stage 100-year life is not possible with poor health. Diet and exercise are essential aspects of your investment in intangible assets. The authors suggest we "invest time in learning about health developments." (By reading this newsletter, you’ve taken an important first step.)

Friendships are also vital, because "a network of close, positive friends...will keep you sane and happy...people who are well connected to others are more vital, energetic and positive than those who are isolated."

It’s well known that lack of social connection is a major cause of dementia. People who spend time with other people are less likely to lose memory and cognitive ability. Depression is likewise a risk factor, not only for dementia but for cancer and heart disease as well.

Embracing Juvenescence

We’re going to go through several careers in the course of our long working lives. Education and new forms of work will take place at different stages of life, which means age and stage are no longer connected. We can just as easily be acquiring a new skill or career at 55 as at 25.

So older people will need to put some effort into retaining features that used to be associated with youth. The authors describe these as "youthfulness and plasticity; playfulness and improvisation; and the capacity to support novel action taking."

Instead of being older for longer, people who successfully live past 100 will be younger for longer. This state of being youthful or “growing young” is called juvenescence.

The authors believe that powerful forces will make this happen, including the elongation of adolescence and the retention of adolescence into adulthood. This will occur because these features will become more useful to us. Juvenescence will become a more valuable trait to have. In evolutionary biology this is called neoteny.

If you’re a traditionalist, this may sound upside down to you. Being childish is NOT considered desirable in an adult. The trick is to be “child-like,” not childish: curious, open to new experiences, constantly learning new things, meeting new people.

It’s already the case that the most privileged and successful people in our society spend many more years in school, and put off marriage longer, than used to be the case. In many ways, “adult” life doesn’t get underway for them until 30 or so. But that period of “adulthood” will last long if we live to 100.

Another aspect that will promote juvenescence is that people of different ages will be more likely to mix than ever before. Gratton and Scott believe this is one of the most exciting impacts of a multi-stage life. It will shake up institutionalized age segregation. Mixing with much younger people will help keep us feeling youthful.

65 May be Too Young to Retire

Retirement at 65 or earlier will not be possible for most people. If you save ten percent of your income and want to retire on half your final salary, you may need to work into your 80s. The reason is those extra decades, when you’ll need something to live on.

Being retired for 40 years is a LOT different from being retired for 20 years.

Many will welcome a longer working life, and even so they’ll still enjoy nearly 20 years of retirement.

Changes in technology, and the introduction of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) will replace or alter many types of work. Of course, experts are engaged in hot debate about what these developments will mean. Will people do different kinds of work, or will there simply be no work for most people – will tens of millions be living on some kind of government-guaranteed minimum income?

You don’t want to drift and find yourself at the mercy of these developments.

The finances of the most advanced nations are already sagging under the burden of their retirement obligations. A sudden surge in life expectancy will add to that. It’s important to have your own Plan B.

The knowledge and skills mastered in the first stage of the three-stage model will no longer see us through our lives. This means, at various stages in our lives, we’ll have to invest in re-learning and re-skilling to keep ourselves employable. We may well choose multiple careers over the course of our lives.

So there are many reasons to be excited by the 100-year life – and also some big challenges. So long as we plan, adapt and embrace its opportunities, living to a great age can be rewarding and satisfying.
  1. The 100 Year Life by Gratton & Scott, Bloomsbury Publishing 2017

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