In unguarded moments, politicians occasionally wish that retired people would “hurry up and die”, on account of the ballooning costs of pensions and healthcare. Andrew J Scott confronts this attitude in his book, “The 100-Year Life”, which has been sold a million copies in 15 languages, and was runner up in both the FT/McKinsey and Japanese Business Book of the Year Awards. Scott joined the London Futurists Podcast to discuss his arguments.
Scott is a professor of economics at the London Business School, a Research Fellow at the Centre for Economic Policy Research, and a consulting scholar at Stanford University’s Centre on Longevity. He is an adviser to the UK government and a variety of international organisations.
The aging of society is good news, not bad
People are living longer. Fewer children are dying before the age of five, fewer parents are dying while their children are young, and more people are surviving long enough to meet their grandchildren. This is surely a good news story, but it is too often seen as a bad thing because society is aging, and there are fewer working people to fund the pensions of those who have retired.
The aging of society means we must change public policy towards aging, and also our own attitudes. Whatever age you are today, you have more life ahead of you than previous generations did, which means that more needs to be invested in your future – by your government, but more importantly by you. You need to make investments in your future health, skills, and relationships.
We need more life stages
We need a new way of looking at the three stages of life: education, work, and retirement. It is easy to forget that this perspective is quite new: both teenagers and retirees are recently invented concepts. Governments are already trying to raise the retirement age, and reduce the level of pension payments, and this is understandably unpopular with many voters. It is unacceptable to simply extend the kind of working life familiar to baby boomers to make it last 60 years. We need to move to a multi-stage working life, with career breaks, periods of part-time work, and transitions to new industries becoming the norm rather than the exception.
In the twentieth century, people took much of their lifetime’s leisure after they retired. In this century, people will take probably more of their leisure before they retire.
“The 100-year life” is a non-academic book, and it has clearly struck a chord with a large audience, but Scott wants to help mould public policy, so he has also been writing papers on longevity economics in order to influence central bankers and government officials, the people who make the rules. One of his priorities has been to put a dollar value on extended lifespans. Governments have long placed a value on human life in the context of healthcare, with concepts like quality-adjusted life years, or QALYs, used to inform decisions about whether to fund particular medicines, for instance. They have not typically applied the same logic to the value of extending lifespan.
Scott and some colleagues employed four archetypal characters to portray the possible outcomes of aging. The first are the Struldbruggs, from Jonathan Swift’s 1726 satirical novel Gulliver’s Travels. Members of this unfortunate race are immortal, but they do age. Struldbruggs above 80 are regarded as useless, and their health keeps deteriorating. Scott thinks this is how many of us currently view the prospects for senior citizens, and this is a serious challenge for policy makers.
The second archetype is Dorian Gray, the Oscar Wilde character who stopped aging until the moment he died, because he magically arranged for a portrait to age and decay instead. This archetype represents the outcome where people get older but do not age biologically, and then die suddenly.
The third archetype is Peter Pan, the character invented by J.M. Barrie. Peter ages, but only very slowly, and he lives a very long time. The fourth and final archetype is Wolverine, the Marvel comics character, who can reverse physical damage, including the damage caused by aging.
Applying economic values to the extra healthspan and lifespan implied in the Dorian Gray and Peter Pan archetype yields very large numbers. For example, extending every life in the USA for one year with no loss of health would generate $56 trillion. For most countries the result is 4% of GDP.
Scott’s next book, called “Evergreen”, due out in March 2024, poses a simple question. You are very likely to get old. You fear getting old. What are you going to do to ensure that you age well?
Adding an extra year of healthy life is all well and good, but there is an increasing number of smart people (including people that Scott works with) who think we could live much longer than that. Indeed, many people think that longevity escape velocity is not far away – the time when medical science gives you an extra year of life every year that passes, so you never actually get older. Scott is nervous about this because he thinks our institutions and our attitudes are not yet ready for it.
However, the social, economic and legal mechanisms required to handle everyone surviving to 100 in good health are pretty much the same as those required for us all to live to 120, or 500, or beyond.
Revolutions in longevity
We’ve had the first longevity revolution, which was to get survival rates for the first five years much higher. Arguably there was a second longevity revolution in which we tackled smoking, and many of the communicable diseases which stopped people progressing through middle age into old age. Globally, life expectancy at birth is now 73, which is an extraordinary achievement. We’re about to have the next longevity revolution (either the second or the third), which is to change how we age.
Many people find the idea of greatly increased longevity fantastical. They don’t believe it, and they often don’t like it. But if you talk instead about the malleability of aging, it makes more sense. We all know that rich people live longer, healthier lives than poor people. We all know some old people who are in great shape and others who are frail, and we know that these outcomes can be produced by healthier lifestyles as well as by the genetic lottery. It’s short step from improving healthspan to improving lifespan.
The three-dimensional longevity dividend
Governments around the world are finally facing up to the demographic challenge, which means we need to work for longer. What they are signally failing to do, says Scott, is to help us to age better, and help us to re-train successfully, so that we can all enjoy the extra years of work. As our longevity increases, we need our healthspan to keep up, and we also need our productive capacity to do the same. Not just our ability to work for more years, but our ability to remain fully engaged with life – to enjoy it. Scott calls this a three-dimensional longevity dividend, and he thinks it is almost trivially obvious that this would be good for the economy too.
As usual, Singapore is ahead of the curve on these matters. The UAE is also focused on geroscience and associated social planning. More broadly, governments everywhere are addressing the problem that people start withdrawing from the labour market from the age of fifty. It’s not usually because they decide to retire early and enjoy a life of leisure. It’s usually because of poor health, or the need to care for someone in poor health, or because their skills become outdated, or because they face ageism in the workplace. Figuring out how to keep these people working – and enjoying their work – should be a top priority for policy makers.
Another development that Scott finds interesting is the concern raised by the falling life expectancy figures in the US and the UK. These governments do finally seem to be considering life expectancy to be an important indicator of policy success, along with GDP. He would like to see governments set targets for healthy life expectancy.
Make friends with your future self
You have more life ahead of you, so you need to make a friend of your future self, and give your future self more options. Those options require good health, good relationships, and good finances. It’s not rocket science, but it’s important.