The New Long Life: how to flourish in a changing world

Mar 31, 2021

7 mins

The New Long Life: how to flourish in a changing world
Laetitia VitaudLab expert

Future of work author and speaker

We live in an “age of longevity” and this has implications for our lives, education, careers, and all of our institutions. The main message of Gratton and Scott’s previous book, The 100-Year Life (for a review of which see our “must-read” article), was that we are moving away from the “three-stage life” of the industrial age: education, work, retirement. We live longer, we work longer and we need new social structures and a different view of age.

Some of the most burning questions tackled by the author’s latest book, The New Long Life, concern the intersection between the longevity revolution and technological change. How can we work for longer–and finance longer lives–if robots take all of our jobs? How can we match advances in technology with innovation in our social structures? How do we flourish, individually and collectively, in a world that’s changing faster than ever?

Andrew Scott is a professor of economics, and Lynda Gratton, who trained in psychology, is a professor of management practice at the London Business School. Combining the fields of economics and psychology for a multi-disciplinary approach to longevity, the authors offer a “framework” for readers to navigate a longer, multi-stage life in a changing world.

“The gap between technological and social ingenuity is growing wider. Technological ingenuity is racing ahead, but social ingenuity is lagging and as a result, our social norms—the structures and systems that are the context of our lives—have not yet caught up.”

“We must all prepare to be social pioneers: this is the message at the heart of this book.”

“For more than a century, best practice life expectancy has been increasing at a remarkable rate of two to three years every decade. This implies that, on average, each generation is living six to nine years longer than the previous generation.”

“The natural rhythm and structure of your life narrative are marked by calendar time and the passing of the years. In the face of longevity, if we want to reimagine age, then we must first decouple the idea of a simple link between time and age. That requires imagining your age is malleable—as you live longer and with a greater chance of good health, then what it means to be forty, sixty, or eighty years old will change in profound ways. It is the malleability that underpins the redesign of life stages.”

  • Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott in The New Long Life

Technological and demographic changes are challenging the idea of a career

Since the start of the age of computers and networks, technological change has been driven by a series of “laws” that have seen changes happen faster and faster. Moore’s Law, the idea that computer power doubles every 18 months, has proved remarkably reliable since 1965, even though experts say it may start to slow soon. Gilder’s Law states that bandwidth will grow at three times the pace of computing power. Metcalfe’s Law says that the value of a network rises in proportion to the square of the number of connected users. (A number squared is multiplied by itself.) And Varian’s Law focuses on the fast multiplication of possible combinations of existing technologies to create “mash-ups” that solve more and more problems.

These laws threaten, or put into question, the future of most existing jobs. Some will be replaced by machines. Others will be redefined and involve machine-augmented human work. For example, automation is expected to reduce the number of drivers across the United States by two-thirds. Also, more and more jobs that involve using one’s intellectual power are expected to undergo profound changes. “For much of history, human ingenuity created tools that augmented and substituted physical power—the stone axe, the wheel, the spinning jenny. Using machines that augment or substitute intellectual power is altogether more revolutionary and harder to understand.”

As a result, linear careers will be challenged profoundly. “All this points to a dynamic and changing landscape of jobs and careers in the decades ahead.” Lifelong learning will become the norm as the job skills acquired at a young age won’t suffice. “Traditional jobs and long-term relationships with an employer are disappearing.”

At the same time, we are going through a longevity revolution. We’ve gained an extra two to three years of life every decade for two centuries. We are living for much longer than our grandparents. And most of these extra years of life are spent in good health. Aging also concerns society as a whole: with the demographic transition comes to a significant increase in the proportion of people over 65. “For the first time in human history today there are more people alive over the age of sixty-five than under the age of five.” This challenges pension systems, health care, and intergenerational equity.

Social ingenuity is what we need

The industrial revolution produced a lot of social ingenuity. For example, state pensions were introduced in Bismarck’s Germany in 1889 and later copied by many other countries. Today, the financing of state pensions in the face of demographic changes is regarded as a challenge. “Governments are acting by raising the pension age and reducing the generosity of pensions.”

Today’s social ingenuity will have to focus on reinventing careers in midlife and reshaping corporate policy to support people to work longer. As governments and corporations are forced to address the practical issues associated with longer lives, individuals too will inevitably experience more transitions and need the ingenuity to continue to thrive.

Many of the categories and institutions we grew up with will need to be redefined. And that’s where the ingenuity will have to start. “During this period of transition your identity is no longer what it was, and what it could be is not yet clear.” For Gratton and Scott, we’ll have to become “social pioneers”, which requires a healthy dose of curiosity: Those who are curious arrive more easily at creative solutions and, importantly, are less likely to fall prey to stereotypes and wrong assumptions . . . Crucially it also means having the determination and courage to take action.”

On the individual level, it’s a complete “redesign of life” that is at stake. It relies on three pillars:

  • Your story: When navigating your longer multi-stage life and making choices, you’ll need a narrative that creates meaning and a sense of identity;

  • Exploration: To be able to make multiple transitions, you’ll need to learn and explore continually;

  • Relationships: Sustaining meaningful relationships and developing a strong sense of connectedness is key to navigating a life of uncertainty and transitions. It is deep, rich, and long friendships that have the most positive and profound impact on life outcomes.”

Let’s redefine age

“In the face of longevity, if we want to reimagine age we must first decouple the idea of a simple link between time and age. That requires imagining your age is malleable . . .” What is age anyway? There’s chronological, biological, sociological, and subjective age.

The chronological age is the foundation of the three-stage life––but it’s a fairly recent concept in human history. “For most of human history, people didn’t know their date or even year of birth. Chronological age became dominant only as governments began to collect birth records in the nineteenth century . . . a result is a form of numerical determinism.”

Chronological age doesn’t take into account what matters most: health and behavior. The current narrative of our aging society focuses on chronological age. Yet “how you age isn’t destiny. It is profoundly influenced by your actions and beliefs.” DNA plays a fairly small part in how we age. Redefining age requires that we embrace age malleability and focus on the time ahead. It also involves how we think of others. “This is the essence of ‘sociological age’, an ‘outside in’ measure that drives your expectations of others.”

Our current social norms about age are outdated. They cause lots of problems in the labor market. Corporations tend to assume that people in their fifties and sixties are less productive and capable of learning, for example. But these age-based stereotypes “aren’t just a prejudice against others, they are also a prejudice against your own future self. This will inevitably limit your long-term opportunities and the extent of your ‘possible selves.”

One solution is to spend more time with people of different ages. Another is to practice imagining our own future selves. (For more on this subject, see our ebook about intergenerational mentoring).

What it means for corporations

On the corporate level, breaking the link between age and stage requires creating “multiple points of entry that enable people to scale up and down their engagement with work, and refashion retirement and productivity”. It’s a significant challenge for corporations that tend to put graduates through homogeneous selection processes. It’s more difficult to evaluate the skills of people of different ages and experiences. Also, up to now, most employers have offered employees binary choices between full-time work or full-time retirement. In the future, optional retirement paths designed to help workers to progressively leave the workforce may become more common. A phased retirement plan can include moving from full-time to part-time work in the six months or years up to retirement.

A culture of flexibility will be necessary for corporations to address the longevity revolution. “When everyone wants flexibility, the system becomes easier to manage.” In a multi-stage life, more flexibility will be required by everybody. In the past, flexibility at work was granted essentially to mothers, who paid a high price for it in terms of income and promotions.

Corporations will also have a fundamental role to play in the promotion of lifelong learning. “This material can be personalized and curated to build competence and enable people to work at their own pace.” Gratton and Scott mention the example of Unilever, which created a learning platform that offers employees “a curated range of options to read and watch”.

Last but not least, corporations will have to take on a major cultural challenge if they are to “ditch ageism”. Most workers aged 45 to 74 still experience ageism. Our assumptions about age tend to disregard the malleability of age. “The malleability of age shows the variance in the way that people will age and different sectors place different demands on employees. It also turns out that there are many other variables, such as education, that exert a much bigger influence on productivity than age alone.”

It’s not just employees who face ageism, it’s also consumers. As society is transformed by this demographic transition, it will be more and more critical for corporations to make sure that their employee base matches the reality of the market and that employees understand the evolving needs and characteristics of their customers.

The New Long Life is a must-read for individuals as well as corporations and governments that want to get ready for this new age of longevity. The gift of a longer life doesn’t have to be viewed as a societal problem. As Gratton and Scott explain, social ingenuity should help us to thrive and to live better as well as longer lives.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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