How are you preparing for the gift of longer life?

Written by
Emma Birchall

02 Aug 2018

02 Aug 2018 • by Emma Birchall

As longevity increases, we will have to rethink how we live and work, individually and at an organisational level, writes Emma Birchall.

My grandmother was born in 1918 in Rangoon, Burma. The average life expectancy at the time was below 45 years of age – this year she will celebrate her 100th birthday.

Dramatic increases in longevity have been somewhat of a surprise gift for most of us. Around half of babies born today in advanced economies can expect to live to 100. And our lives will be far longer than those of our parents and grandparents. Consider that if you were born in 1967, you have a 50% chance of reaching 91; and that if you were born 10 years later, this increases to 93. We are only now considering the reality of what it means to live well into our 90s or even 100s.

When researching this trend with Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, London Business School professors of psychology and economics respectively, we observed that most people will approach their 100-year life with no role models to demonstrate how to navigate it successfully.

As you can imagine, at this point I was relieved to think of myself as the exception to the rule. I, of course, have a role model in my grandmother who has already lived a 100-year life and counting; a woman who is one of the most vivacious, smart and well-supported people I know. My first anecdotal interview was therefore with nana and my first question: “What’s the secret to living a happy and successful 100-year life?”

Her answer? “Have plenty of children” – 14 to be precise, as a happy outcome of an Asian-Catholic family. Having 14 children gives you a return on investment of around 74 grandchildren (yes, I have 73 cousins) in what has to be the best social support network ever conceived. We have a family committee and a rota. My grandmother was thinking ahead.

While this brought a warm smile to my face, it was perhaps not the robust project plan I was hoping for. I’m unlikely to hit the milestone of 14 children. So, what might plan B look like?

For me, and for most of us, this gift of longer life comes with the need to rethink fundamentally how we live and work. In particular, we will need to disrupt the traditional three-stage life that has defined us for generations. That is: education, work and retirement.

Let's start with retirement: These three stages worked well in previous generations when it was feasible to retire at 60 years of age with around a decade of leisure ahead of us. However, this simply doesn’t work if we are to live to 100. Few people can afford to, or will want to, spend 30-40 years in retirement. Instead, we need to be more thoughtful, as individuals and organisations, about how we build in opportunities for leisure and recuperation throughout our lives, rather than simply storing them all up for the final phase.

Next, work: living longer will surely mean working for longer – careers will extend into the 70s and possibly even 80s. However, the current ‘up-or-out’ culture in many organisations is not well suited to this reality. When careers become 50-year marathons rather than 30-year sprints, there must be flexibility to dial down as well as up, responsibly.

Finally, education: learning will need to become a lifelong endeavour. Over our longer careers, we will experience more disruption to skill sets as we are increasingly augmented by technology. The ways in which we add value to organisations and within society, will continually shift. And we need to be ready to adapt in the moment. This calls on individuals and organisations to make learning a continuous endeavour and one in which we invest time and energy throughout our lives.

These shifts in our thinking will enable us to prepare for the kind of happy and fulfilled 100-year life enjoyed by an increasing number of people in society.

By the end of my interview with my grandmother, I realised that while the big family was a significant part of her path to a happy and fulfilled 100-year life, the reality actually reflected many of the messages above. Her thirst for learning has been insatiable – passing her GCSE in German at the age of 60 and her driving test at the age of 76 being just a couple of examples over the years. Add to that her ability to adapt in a more dramatic way than any of us is ever likely to – moving her entire family from post-colonial Burma to London in the 1950s and having a reflexive sense of self with the changes to identity, status and community that came with it. This adaptability and resilience has surely been a key ingredient.

For me, it will be these lessons that I truly take from my remarkable role model of the 100-year life.