Things governments and businesses need to think about when people live past 100


By Lara O’Reilly

Chances are, most of us haven’t asked ourselves the question: What if I live until 2100?

Most people would probably pin the average human lifespan at somewhere around 70 to 80 years old. The World Health Organization said the average expectancy was 72 in 2013.

But within academia there are some serious discussions being had about what the world will look like when the average person lives past 100. But those discussions are only just beginning to permeate governments and the business world.

Hence why the “What If You Are Still Alive in 2100?” panel session at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos — the yearly who’s who of the business, political, and academic elite — made for such an interesting an eye-opening debate.

Turns out, living past 100 won’t be a rarity very soon. Vitality global chief health officer Derek Yach said on the panel that the population in 50 to 100 years from now will be between 10 and 11 billion people because of it. People have already lived to more than 120 years old. It’s not unfathomable that more of us could celebrate our centenaries.

Yet the decision makers of this world are not moving fast enough to keep up

London Business School professor of management practice Lynda Gratton said: “What’s clear is the major restructuring of life that we think is going to happen with regards to longevity — corporations are not prepared for this. Governments are not prepared for this. It will rest with the individual both working on their own and collectively who will be the agents of change. I expect to see and we are certainly monitoring some amazing experiments occurring over the next decade as people come to terms with what it really means to live 100 years.”

So what kind of things should governments and corporations be preparing for?

Some of the inevitable signs of ageing will begin to be wiped out

Salk Institute for Biological Studies president and co-recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine Elizabeth Blackburn said medically and scientifically we will soon have a real understanding that much of what is attributed to aging as an inevitable process — the slow decline, the increase in heart disease, cancers, dementia’s and so on — will be avoidable.

Sadly, they won’t be solved with someone wonderful magic pill that can counteract certain genes. It’s a complex system, Blackburn said.

For example, we already know cardiovascular disease can largely be attributed to lifestyle: Eating lots of red meat, smoking, not keeping fit. All those things are modifiable. With dementia too, there is research to suggest exercise and social support structures can stave off some of the effects.

Meanwhile, governments should be providing more funding for pre-natal and childcare education.

Blackburn said there are already “excellent” studies, looking at people pre-natally, then looking at the offspring who were deprived in some form in pregnancies. Those deprived in some during pregnancies were found to have a higher likelihood of diabetes and hyper-tension. The ageing process starts far earlier than old age and that investment can pay off decades later.

There’s no way people can take their pensions as early as they do now

For the last three years, Gratton, alongside economist Andrew Scott, have been researching what life will look like when everybody lives to 100.

If you live until 100 and want to retire on 50% of your income, as most people do, you’ll need to be working until 79-to-82-years-old, according to Gratton.

It’s clear the idea of pushing people out of work at 60 is already behind the times.

There will be a whole new set of life stages

If we’re working longer, we’re going to need to keep on learning. So Gratton thinks there’ll be a shift among people at an older age from a notion of leisure and recreation to a notion of recreation.

In an elongated life, there will be new life stages. The idea of leisure, work, and retirement will be turned on its head. Individuals will take their own individual paths and have the capacity to transform themselves.

“Explorer” is one stage.

Gratton said: “Why would you want to make all your big career decisions at 20 when you could explore and create more choices?”

“Individual producers,” is another stage — the idea of using all the readily available technology to build their own companies. Portfolios will become much more important too, she added.

The least-prepared countries are three of the largest countries in the world

Soon there will be three billion additional people in Africa, a population rising from a very low base, with a relatively low level of wealth, according to Yach.

A large proportion of older people will be situated in three of the largest and most populated countries on Earth: India first, then China, and Nigeria, he said.

While all this happens, climate change isn’t going away — it’s going to steadily get worse. Yach predicted that some major epidemics, such as the near 15,000 heatstroke-related deaths in France in 2003, will become more widespread as some countries are not prepared to take care for vulnerable people during extreme weather.

Pensions are under threat

Gratton said that the UK government predicts that a child born today will live to 85. She says that’s “obviously ridiculous” but there’s a clear reason why governments are sticking to these kinds of estimates, rather than extending life expectancy forecasts to nearer 100.

“The reason why they are doing that is that all our pension schemes would go under water and would look more and more like a Ponzi scheme,” she added.

Corporations and individuals need to realize employees need to work into their 70s and mid-70s — and they’ll have to save.

The relationship workers will have with their corporations will change

As people work for longer, the “intangible assets” an employer will offer will become more important. Gratton said questions like “how much are you going to train me?” will become just as important as “how much are you going to pay me?”

The idea of a working week is probably going to change too. Perhaps companies will get more productivity from their older workforces if they ditch the traditional five-day working week, Blackburn suggested. Instead, companies may offer a two days on, one day off model.

Work-life balance too might need to be re-balanced over a longer period. Thinking about her own life as a professor, she said she has certain periods when she wants to be intensely involved in her research, then other times when she wants to give family her full attention — not half-baked for both over decades and decades.


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Thumbnail image credit: J. Elliot/Flickr via Business Insider

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