The Life Phases You Thought You Knew, Are Becoming Obsolete

Photo by Henri Cartier Bresson

Photo by Henri Cartier Bresson

Over the last 200 years, best practice life expectancy has increased at a near constant rate of more than two years every decade. If this trend continues, a child born in the UK today has more than a 50% chance of living to 105. On average, most of these extra years of life will be healthy ones. It is as if the arc of life has been extended.

Our interest is in what this extending arc of life means for individuals and how government can best respond. Currently, the main focus is on dealing with ageing and end-of-life issues such as pensions and healthcare. But longevity is not just about ageing – it has crucial implications for all ages. Already, people are marrying and having children later, creating mid-career breaks, taking time out to explore, building their own businesses, going back to education. This is already leading to a redefinition of age – how many times have you heard that 70 is the new 60, or 40 the new 30?

Those who live to 100 have around 100,000 extra productive hours than those who live to 70. Undoubtedly, work will take a significant portion of these hours. Historically low interest rates and growing longevity are destroying the inadequate provision societies have made for future pension support. Unless people are prepared to save more, then the inevitable consequence is that they will have to work longer. Already in the UK, one in 10 people over 70 is still in employment, double the figure of 20 years ago.

Simple calculation suggests that, given the current level of household savings, those aged 20 today are likely to be working into their late 70s or even early 80s and those in their mid-40s into their early or mid 70s. We need to create a world where this is feasible and beneficial, a way that makes a longer life a blessing and not a curse.

However, this is not just about working longer – the broader challenge is how to restructure social and working lives to make best use of these extra hours. The life structure that emerged in the 20th century – a three-stage life of education, work and then retirement – is unlikely to survive this elongation.

A way around this is a multi-stage life – with transitions and breaks in between. In one stage, the focus may be on accumulating financial assets, in another creating a better work-life balance. Sometimes, the switches will be driven by personal choice, at other times forced by technological obsolescence.

These multi-stage lives require a proficiency in managing transitions and reflexivity – imagining possible selves, thinking about the future, reskilling and building new and diverse networks. At its best, it offers people an opportunity to explore who they are and arrive at a way of living that is nearer to their personal values. Might it be that this growing realisation of longevity is behind the oft-stated claims about how “millennials” have different values and attitudes to previous generations?

-Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott via The Guardian