Guest writer: Professor Andrew Scott  

As an Economics Professor at London Business School, I’ve spent years researching globalisation, technology and the ageing society. Over this time I’ve seen people return to the same topics - the increasing number of old people, the growing financial cost of pensions and healthcare, and how this will negatively affect our society and economy. The message was clear: we can’t afford to get old.

Several things trouble me about this, in particular the unthinking nature of the projections for old people. On average, we are living and staying healthier for longer than our parents, so is that individual good news necessarily bad news for our society? There are more old people than ever before but the process of ageing is changing. We are ageing more slowly. We are ageing better.

What is an older person?

The definition of ‘old’ is malleable. Many of the physical aspects of ageing are beyond our control but we know that health outcomes are much improved with the right diet, exercise and environment. As a result, the experience of ageing is varied and no longer suits being simplified into the three stages of education, work and retirement.

For most of humanity’s history, people didn’t know how old they were beyond a functional sense of age: you were ‘old’ if you could no longer work. It was only when governments began to collect accurate birth records, about 200 years ago, that granular age boundaries were created. This was the foundation of the society where everyone stayed at school until 16 and retired at 65.

Since the UK state pension was introduced in 1908, life expectancy in the UK has increased by 36 years - a staggering amount of time. Most people think that these years come at the end of our lives but they are really being gained at the end of middle age. In the UK, a 78 year-old male has the mortality rate of a 65 year old from 30 years ago.

You could say ‘78 is the new 65’ but with one important difference: 78 year-olds still have 13 more years of experience that 65 year-olds.  Thanks to these longer lives there is the potential for more human knowledge and experience to be shared. So we need to think about how we keep older people in the work force. This is challenging – work and workplaces weren’t designed for older people and there are many prejudices against them.

The 100 Year Life 

In the The 100 Year Life my colleague Linda Gratton and I argue that we must reconstruct the life stages inherited from our industrial past, moving away from three stages of education, work, retirement. Instead we must do things differently – a multi-stage career and life.

Just as the twentieth century invented teenagers and retirees, we are now seeing people behave very differently from previous generations. More women are more having children in their forties and couples are more likely to get married in their thirties than their twenties. And there’s more change to come as these individuals move into their 50s, 60s and 70s.

A longer life means it is vital that we keep investing in our future – our education, health, finances and relationships all matter far more than they used to. Right now the very old are facing problems they would not have been able to predict; for example, access to social care. The more we can prepare the course of life into older age, the we likely we will arrive at our final stages still healthy and happy.

How do you redesign a life?

One of the challenges of an extended life is how to make it a good one. A good life can be measured in many different ways but there are common elements. Relationships are vital to many people so, if our closest friends and family members are no longer alive or nearby, we must find fellowship  through the community and the younger generation. We know that if people are engaged in meaningful work and social activity they tend to live longer.

So how do we maintain this meaningful social engagement when employers tend to move on workers when they reach 65? Social purpose organisations, such as Now Teach, are one way to find it. There’s evidence that volunteering and charitable work is good for our health and it’s been shown that including older workers in workplaces means teams work better and are more productive.

Marc Freedman, the US founder of Encore Fellows – a programme which matches seasoned talent with non-profits organisations – argues the way to live forever is to leave something behind for the next generation. We won’t find immortality by playing around with DNA but by leaving a lasting contribution to our community.

A plan for the future: The Longevity Forum

This is why I set up a charity called the Longevity Forum and announced a number of annual projects. One aims to cure scleroderma, a rare autoimmune disease, and another is working with adult education provider City Lit to develop an accessible mid-life/mid-career course that helps individuals evaluate their finances, skills, working prospects and general life direction.

We are also bringing Encore Fellows to the UK, adapting the US programme that matches people who considering retirement with a charitable organisation in need of their skills for six months as part of their transition out of their career.

Training for transitions

There is much to do as we all prepare for a longer fulfilled life. As we focus more and more on multi-stage lives, a key skill will be for us all to become good at transitions. The current three-stage life does not train us for this.

Transitions come in different forms; some are willing, some are forced. Some require us to take an existing skillset into a different setting, like the Encore programme, and some require us to learn a new skill set in a new setting, like Now Teach.

Having a structured programme for any life-stage transition, and to have others going through it at the same time, is a fantastic support. I’m excited to see more opportunities like this emerge as more people prepare for our 100 year lives.

Andrew Scott is a Professor of Economics at the London Business School, Research Fellow at the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) as well as author of “The 100 Year Life – Living and Working in an Age of Longevity”. He is a co-founder of The Longevity Forum and Encore Fellows (UK).