Sunday Times, 12 June 2016
Death is running away from us. For 50% of children born in the developed world today, it lies 105 years in the future. For all of us it is receding at an astonishing rate. In your fifties you can now expect to live into your nineties.
In this, if in little else, the Queen and Prince Philip are leading the way. She has just turned 90 and he 95. On Friday at St Paul’s, a service of thanksgiving marking the occasion was packed with an inspiring bunch of octo- and nonagenarians.
And with the Queen within a decade of writing herself a card, it is worth noting that 10 years ago one person was in charge of the Queen’s birthday messages to people on their 100th birthday, whereas now it takes a staff of seven. In Japan there are so many centenarians — around 60,000 — that they have given up the tradition of sending them silver dishes. Reaching 100 is no longer a big deal.
This process — a two- to three-year increase in life expectancy every decade — has been going on for 200 years. Demographers often say it is over, a plateau has been reached. Undeterred, we just keep plodding on.
Ignore every other political, social or personal issue that grabs your attention; this is the big one. It will affect every aspect of life, from love and friendship to work. Two basic models of life have already been broken by death’s flight, many more are now being tested to destruction.
The three-part life — education, work and a quiet retirement — is rapidly being replaced by a multiple-part model with more years of education in later life, portfolio careers and increasingly juvenescent behaviour — older people acting younger longer.
The nuclear “Hi, honey, I’m home” family with a husband working to increase tangible assets and a wife at home working on the intangibles — child-rearing, social connection — is all but dead on its feet. Apart from anything else, children take up a much smaller part of longer lives. Perhaps spouses will too. Divorce rates are falling generally, but rising among 60, 70 and 80-year-olds. Marriage in the mid-twenties used to represent a 30- to 50-year commitment; now it could mean 80 years, in which annoying habits become intolerable.
Some regard all this with dismay. “I don’t think it’s a good thing,” Diana Simmonds, an 87-year-old retired civil servant, tells me. “We’ll be too old and decrepit by then. I’m just creeping around with a stick . . . and you become a burden to people. That’s not a nice feeling.”
I tell her about the “compression of morbidity”. Apparently, the number of years of ill-health preceding death are falling as the older get healthier.
“Not that much healthier,” she responds drily.
The young, on the other hand, are doing what the young do, adapting. Dani Bernston is 18, preparing for her A-levels and planning to become a doctor. She had vaguely expected 80 years of life, but now discovers she might have 20 extra years. She is surprised. “There are all these health crises in the headlines. You’d think lives were getting shorter.”
But she is ready. She wants a portfolio career; she wants to move around the world, to change. “Change,” she says, “excites me.”
Politicians know all about this but try to ignore it because the timescales involved — of legislative and economic impact — are much longer than an election cycle. Companies know about it but quietly shuffle it into the “too hard” file. A new book, The 100-Year Life, by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, academics at the London Business School, suggests this means all the significant changes will be made by individuals. (Scott, incidentally, is 51 and expects to live to 90; Gratton is 61 and plans to make it to 100.)
The book is designed, Scott tells me, “to accentuate the positive”. But to get to the positive you have to wade through a thicket of negatives. Inequality being, to me, the most scary.
Take, for example, the age at which you receive your pension. No problem, you may think, if people are living longer, healthier lives: you just increase the retirement age. But not everybody is living longer. Poverty kills and, across the developed world, the life expectancy gaps between rich and poor are shocking. So if you increase the pension age, you also increase the number of poor who will find themselves having to work until they drop dead.
“The 100-year life is not open to everyone,” says Scott. “The 20th century saw the invention of retirement, which is a tremendous social achievement . . . before then people worked until they died. If you just extend the retirement age and the rich live to 100, you’re going to get the end of retirement for those at the bottom of the income distribution, which is brutal . . . It’s not like income redistribution, you can’t take those years away from the rich and give them to the poor.”
The other negatives are more obvious. It is already clear that longevity has created new patterns of disease. Infections used to be the big killer, now cancer and heart disease tend to finish us off. And there may be signs that the Alzheimer’s epidemic is receding, but still we know that 50% of people over 85 will suffer some form of dementia. Medicine compresses morbidity in many areas, but the brain seems to resist our interventions.
But, surely, if life is better than death, celebrations of all these extra years are reasonable. “So much of the attention has been on Alzheimer’s,” says Gratton, “but actually we think we should be focusing on the whole of life.”
“The most likely outcome,” says Scott, “is that we will live healthier for longer.”
One very enthusiastic celebrant is Nigel Southern, a 57-year-old businessman. He can now reasonably expect to sail through his eighties, and is ecstatic about the added years. “My view of life is that it is remarkable, fantastic, and I want to get as much of it as I can for as long as I can.”
Southern says he has seen a few “car crashes” in his fifties — “You see what happens when people smoke, eat and drink too much, take drugs, go to parties” — and is determined to avoid that fate with exercise and dieting. He is also doing it to compress his own morbidity, for he has a visceral aversion to the idea of a nursing home. Meanwhile, he is saving diligently to ensure he can finance his life, however long it turns out to be. He is, in short, a poster boy for the message of Gratton and Scott’s book.
The most important thing, Gratton says, is preparation of precisely the kind Southern is engaged in. Our current ideas of financial planning, for example, are still in the age of the three-part life and the nuclear family. If, for example, you want a decent pension as you decline towards death at 105, you will probably need to work until you are 80. That can be solved by more long-term saving and a more flexible attitude to work — say, a part-time job to defer pension draw-down as you get older.
One positive outcome should be greater equality between the sexes. “Most of these extra years of life are coming after the years of childbirth and raising a family,” says Scott, “which does potentially make gender issues easier to deal with — if more of life is not about children, then that seems to have major implications for the gender structure of society.”
In other words, for most of a very long married life, the sexes will not be divided by the greater proportion of a woman’s time being tied up with child-bearing and raising.
Another huge and interesting positive is the increased importance of friendship. The crucial point about friendship is endurance. True friends are there for you whatever and whenever. Greater longevity means deeper friendships.
“One of my greatest sources of joy,” says Gratton, “is friendship. I celebrated 50 years of friendship with one friend. You cannot buy that. You could be a billionaire, but you couldn’t buy a 50-year friendship.”
The book has high hopes for the sustenance of the next generations by large networks of friends (flesh and blood, not Facebook). These would be gathered during the extra years of exploration they are already embracing — the extension of adolescence up to the age of 30 has already become a new life stage, a sort of post-teen wandering.
On top of that, the extended family may return to overthrow the nuclear. As the old pursue their portfolio careers, they will interact more with the young. Living under the same roof will seem more acceptable. Our present, brutal arrangement in which the young and old seem to regard each other as different species will, happily, come to an end.
Of course, the $64,000 question is: how far will this go? Some think longevity increases will go on until we achieve medical immortality (we could still be shot or hit by a truck). The more sober view comes from Professor Samuel Preston at Pennsylvania University, an expert on mortality trends.
Life expectancy initially increased from 25-30 years to 65-70 years, he tells me, because of public and personal health measures designed to prevent infection, also by increasing affluence and improved diets. The next increase came from improved treatment of cardiovascular diseases.
This will continue, but, as the proportion of deaths from cancer rises, the rise in longevity will slow. Cancer is, Preston says, “a harder nut than cardiovascular disease”.
“Under the present state of knowledge,” he concludes, “and assuming all available methods to prevent and treat diseases were deployed for 100% of the population, life expectancy for a population would probably peak around 100 years. But knowledge will advance. The key will be whether we can find ways to slow the ageing process itself.”
So there you are, we are stuck with lives so long that to our not-so-distant ancestors we would appear to be all but immortal. Death may not be defeated, but he is on the run as never before. We have no choice but to attempt the impossible — make sense of our lives.
The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott is published by Bloomsbury, priced £18.99
Save hard and work past 80
The 100-year lifespan is a time bomb ticking under your pension plan. Twenty or 30 more years of retired life have to be financed — or you could just go on working, if the jobs are there.
Gratton and Scott invent three characters to make the point — Jack, born in 1945, Jimmy, born in 1971 and Jane, born in 1998. They make the assumption that they need to earn 50% of their final salary in their retirement.
Jack does best with a conventional three-stage life — education, work and retirement — and he is lucky enough to die at a mere 70. He also had a generous contribution from his employer. As a result he only had to save 4.3% of his income throughout his working life.
Jimmy has a life expectancy of 85. He also has a three-stage life, retiring at 65, leaving him with 20 years to fund. He has no company pension. He needs to save 17.2% a year.
Jane has a life expectancy of 100. For her the three-stage life with retirement at 65 is no longer viable — she would have to save 25% of all her income. Retirement at 70 and a 10% saving rate would give her 30% of her final salary. To get 50% she’d have to work well into her eighties. She has 30 more years of life than Jack but also 20 more years of work.
Longevity is very expensive.