FOR MOST OF history humans lived only long enough to ensure the survival of the species. Today babies born in the West can expect to see their grandchildren have children. With more time come many more opportunities for work and pleasure, enriching individuals, societies and economies alike. Whether mankind is able to reap this “longevity dividend” will depend on how those opportunities are used.
By the early 2000s the state of health of American men aged 69, as reported by themselves, was as good as that of 60-year-olds in the 1970s; 70 really does seem to be the new 60. This report has argued that if employers, businesses and financial services adapt to make far more of such people, big economic benefits for everyone could follow. There are striking parallels between the longevity dividend now in prospect and the gender dividend that became available when many more women started to enter the labour market in the 1970s. The last stage of life could also be greatly improved by letting more people retain their autonomy, often with the help of technology.
But for all those benefits to be realised, two things need to happen. First, employers must adapt to an ageing workforce. Although the gig economy and self-employment have been helpful in allowing older people to carry on working, the fact that they are so widely used suggests that traditional employers are often insufficiently flexible to accommodate this new group.
The business case
Ageist recruitment practices and corporate cultures can be big impediments to keeping older workers employed. Nearly two-thirds of this group surveyed in America said they had witnessed or experienced age discrimination at work, according to the AARP, a lobby group for the over-50s. Legislation can help, but the best hope is for employers to recognise that offering opportunities to older workers is smart business rather than a social duty. Academics have found that older people in multi-generation teams tend to boost the productivity of those around them, and such mixed teams perform better than single-generation ones. Companies that have taken this advice to heart, such as Deutsche Bank, report fewer mistakes and positive feedback between young and old.
As one of the world’s oldest countries, Germany offers other encouraging examples. “It used to hurt in all the usual spots,” says Andreas Schupan, grabbing his back, elbows and shoulders. Aged 47, he has worked on a production line at BMW, a carmaker, for over 20 years. Now a computerised cart does most of the lifting for him, and he hopes to stay on for another 20 years.
The second thing that needs to happen is for the benefits of longer, healthier lives to be spread much more equitably. As things stand, greater longevity is something of a lottery that favours the well-off and the well-educated. Not only do people in the rich world live significantly longer than those in poor countries, but huge differences in lifespan persist even among rich-country dwellers. In America the difference in mortality rates among those with and without a college degree has been widening for the past 20 years.
Across the OECD, the average highly educated 25-year-old man can expect to live eight years longer than a contemporary with only a basic education (see chart). In Britain a baby girl born between 2012 and 2014 in Richmond, a wealthy area in south-west London, is not only likely to live 3.4 years longer than her equivalent in Tower Hamlets, a run-down part of east London; she will also enjoy 14.5 more years in good health, estimates Britain’s Office for National Statistics.
The causes of such gaps in life chances between haves and have-nots are well known. Smoking, obesity, air pollution, drugs and alcohol consumption all have a strong, and in some cases growing, influence on differences in life expectancy within countries, says Fabrice Murtin of the OECD. The best way to level the playing field is to invest in public health, offer universal access to health care and provide high-quality education for everyone. Unsurprisingly, in countries such as Canada or Sweden, which attach great importance to such matters, the gap in life expectancy between the most and the least educated people is much narrower than it is in America.
Individuals will also have to take more responsibility for unlocking their own longevity dividend. In a survey of Americans conducted by researchers at Stanford University, 77% of respondents said they wanted to live to 100, but only 42% claimed to be making a real effort to get there.
Given the right input from governments, employers and individuals, it should be possible to stretch the increasingly productive in-betweener stage and compress the dependent period at the very end of life. But that last stage will always remain costly, and the state will probably continue to pick up most of the tab.
Estimates of life expectancy over recent decades have regularly proved too conservative. Some demographers already think that children born in the rich world today will routinely make it to 100. With vast sums being pumped into fields such as stem-cell research, regenerative medicine, biomedical technology and genomics, human lives could stretch well beyond that. If that happened rapidly, it could prove highly disruptive. Economies would suffer, social tensions could erupt and progress on gender equality might be reversed as many more women were obliged to become caregivers for the elderly. To avoid such ill effects, societies and economies must start in earnest to prepare for those longer lives right now.