Our life spans are getting longer – much longer
For most of human history, people lived to the ripe old age of about 30. Globally speaking, it’s only been in the past century that our life expectancy took off. The current world average (2010) is 67.2 years, although like all averages, this figure masks some dismally low life expectancies – below 50 years in several parts of Africa.
If you look at women only, who tend to live a bit longer than men, there are 58 countries right now where a girl born today can expect to live to at least age 80. The champions on the league table are girls born in Macau, who can expect to live to the astonishing age of 87 years and 6 months!
Thanks to medical advances and healthier living, our longevity is extending. If the trend continues, some think half the babies born in the developed world will live to celebrate their 100th birthday.
What could this mean?
Living to 100 would be great, right? Well, maybe. As Jay Leno once said, the problem with living longer is that you get those extra years when you’re in your eighties, when what you really want is some extra years when you’re in your twenties....
I believe this trend to longer life spans will have several far-reaching consequences, and to some extent they will start affecting us already in the next 11 years.
Thirty-five years of pain?
In the developed world, medical science has largely succeeded in wiping out the infectious diseases that used to kill people at a relatively young age. With few exceptions, people in the industrialized West no longer die of tuberculosis, malaria, lower respiratory infections, etc. Happily, we survive to old age… and then succumb to chronic diseases like cancer or coronary heart disease.
Well, we all have to go sometime. However, surviving to old age not only means that you are probably going to meet your demise thanks to cancer or a heart attack. It also implies the increased risk of contracting rheumatic diseases such as arthritis or osteoporosis. The onset of these diseases varies but in general is around age 60. And this is where we should remember Jay Leno’s observation above, because rheumatic diseases lead to pain and disability – and there is no cure.
Some sobering WHO statistics:
- 50% of patients with rheumatoid arthritis are unable to hold down a full-time job;
- 18% of women over age 60 have symptomatic osteoarthritis, 25% of whom cannot perform their major daily activities of life;
- osteoporosis is present in 70% of people over age 80; the most common result of this disease is the hip fracture, which is fatal 20% of the time, and permanently disables a further 50%.
So does living to 100 mean, for some individuals, that they will contract a rheumatic disease in their 60’s and spend the next 35 years unable to function and fighting chronic pain? Unfortunately, yes.
For society as a whole, how will we deal with increasing numbers of disabled people? The costs alone will be staggering. According to the OECD, healthcare costs in the EU will rise 350% between now and 2050, thanks to the increasingly older population. And look only at costs associated with these rheumatic disease-related disabilities. For example, the WHO says that 20 years ago, there were 1.7 million hip fractures per year; by 2050 there will be 6 million per year, each requiring hospitalization. The economic costs from lost working days are also considerable.
But perhaps there is a silver lining, at least for some far-sighted companies, because the “35 years in pain” scenario opens up opportunities in areas such as medical research, care giving and even the design and manufacture of products, tools and services to improve the quality of life of the growing number of people suffering from these disabilities.
It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good, eh?
Redistributing the content
Another consequence of living to 100 is that we will change the way we order our lives.
Imagine living to 100, but not changing anything about the way your life is “segmented”:
- Like today, you would graduate from university at age 22. Is it possible that this education would still be relevant to you 50, 60, 70, almost 80 years later?
- You would start your professional career at 22 and retire at (let’s say) 64. Then what? Do a lot of crossword puzzles and potter around the garden for 36 more years?
- Your career would be fairly linear, i.e. you would tend to stay in the same profession for 40 years and, if you’re good, you would rise up through the ranks of a handful of organizations.
- You would get married at (let’s say) age 29. Would you and your partner stay together for 71 years?
These notions make very little sense to me.
Take education. As fast as our know-how is accelerating, it’s absurd to expect that an education “completed” while you are in your twenties will not be obsolete by the time you’re 40, let alone 80. In some technical fields, what you learn in the first year of a four-year curriculum is obsolete by the time you graduate!
I believe that in the next 11 years, forward-thinking educators will realize that our present educational model is not sustainable, and we will begin to see a major overhaul of the education “industry”: how education is structured, what it’s meant to achieve, and how, when and by whom it’s delivered.
More on this subject is here.
Regarding retirement, it seems obvious that 30+ years dawdling about as an unproductive member of society is not realistic. In any case it is totally unaffordable.
The concept of paying retirees a pension was invented in Germany in the late 1880’s. Bismarck, Chancellor at the time, was building the world’s first welfare state. He introduced a tax on workers that financed a modest annuity that would allow old people a chance to decline in dignity at the end of their lives. But that was the key to this idea: the payments came at the end of their lives. The age when the payment kicked in (initially 70, later reduced to 65) was very close to the average life expectancy. Bismarck certainly didn’t plan to make pension payments to retirees for 35 years!
What he well understood was that the most logical age for retirement is when people are at, or near, the end of their productive life. In 1889 this meant age 65. But nowadays, people are not “used up” at age 65. In the U.S. Senate, for example, 39 of the 100 Senators are over age 65. Eleven are over 75.
So we will soon begin to see governments raising the age of retirement throughout the developed world, in line with our longer productive lives. Not without a fuss! (The picture below shows what happened when this idea was floated in Greece recently.) But like it or not, it will have to be done.
In the fullness of time, our working lives will therefore not be 40 years long (from age 25 to 65) but probably closer to 55-60 years in length, i.e. lasting up to the early 80’s. Even this still leaves 15 years of annuity payments to be financed, but with more time to pay into the funds, retirees may generate enough financial resources to cover this gap.
It may take longer than a decade to extend the retirement age as far as that, however. We can expect a lot of political resistance. (Look at that photo of Greece again.)
Living for 100 years, and working for 60 of them, will also have consequences on how people structure their careers. For example, instead of a career lasting 60 years, many people will prefer to have three careers, each one 18-20 years long or so. Education – or rather, re-education – will be delivered in big chunks between careers, as well as in bite-size bits all along.
Meet the wives
And what about marriage? Is it realistic to expect that someone who gets married while still in his or her twenties will stay with the same spouse for three quarters of a century?
As everybody knows, today’s divorce statistics already prove that a huge percentage of marriages don’t even last 15 years, let alone 75. So the short answer to the question above is “Probably no.” Does this mean that (like careers) everyone will have first, second and third wives and husbands?
Some will, for sure. But I believe more profound changes are likely. We are experiencing a number of trends that will have a significant cumulative impact on where marriage is heading as an institution. I’m referring to the move toward cohabitation, children born out wedlock, pre-nuptial agreements, gay marriage, and eventually the acceptance of polygamy within the West, first as a nod to multiculturalism but later as a positive thing in its own right:
- “Living together without benefit of clergy” carries no societal stigma any more. Depending on the country, between 10 and 30% of couples cohabit. In that sense, cohabitation has already knocked the concept of marriage off its pedestal.
- A huge percentage of children are born each year to unmarried parents – as high as 50% in Scandinavia. In the UK, about 1 family out of 4 with dependent children is headed by a single parent. In the USA, there are over 12 million such families. Here again, traditional ideas about how a family should be structured (and sanctioned by society and the law) are being discarded.
- Pre-nups are also changing the game. Historically, one reason marriage was invented was to preserve capital within the family being created. A pre-nup therefore removes this economic justification for marriage, allowing the partners to pack up and leave with their own stuff, no questions asked. In one UK survey, 46% of all the respondents said they would want a pre-nuptial agreement with their spouse-to-be. (In the UK however, such agreements are not legally enforceable – yet.)
- Admitting same-sex couples into the institution of marriage will prove to be a further step toward redefining what a family is.
- The arrival in the West of more Muslim immigrants practicing polygamy may also help break down resistance to the idea that marriage must be between one man and one woman.
The cumulative impact of all these trends is that society is slowly scrapping the idea of “marriage” itself as an old-fashioned relic from the past – quaint but completely unnecessary. At some point, we will be ready to accept a variety of alternative domestic arrangements, which will all be contractually defined and legally protected as civil unions. Whether anybody calls them “marriages” or not will be irrelevant: they will be de facto family units.
For example, if two men can marry and adopt children, thus forming a legal family, why couldn’t a civil union be agreed between two men and one woman? Or between three men and six women, for that matter? Once this barrier has been breached – and it will be breached sometime in the next 11 years – unconventional communal arrangements will become more common, with adults joining by invitation (“Will you marry us?” or “Hey, why don’t we all get married?”), signing the papers, and becoming “junior wives” and “junior husbands” in the newly extended union, or partnership – or “family” if you prefer.
Legally, an adult could stay in such a civil union for a few years, then opt out (or “divorce” it), agree to a division of assets as in any divorce, look around for an amenable civil union that is more in line with his needs at that particular point in his life, and then ask its members if he can join up.
Economically, such unions could be very strong, with several breadwinners – although I won’t pretend that it would always be easy to make group decisions on how money is spent… On the other hand, an explicit or implicit seniority system could help decision-making, just like in real families today, where Dad’s vote counts a bit more than the kids’.
Speaking of kids, raising children – the other historical reason why marriage developed – would become a communal responsibility. A civil union could even recruit new wives/mothers into the partnership specifically for that role. And later in life, civil unions may form consisting solely of adults who have no intention of complicating the life of the “family” – where everyone is over, say, age 50 – with children.
The resulting family units will be a hybrid between a kibbutz and the kind of matriarchal commune or “line marriage” that science fiction author Robert Heinlein brilliantly described in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, about life on a lunar colony.
Of course, this kind of arrangement won’t be for everybody. In the next 11 years, the vast majority of new families being formed will be through couples cohabiting or getting married – and I wish them well, even though statistics point to the sad fact that a third of these marriages won’t last.
But what we will see in the next 11 years, is a further breakdown of the perception of marriage as it has always been, followed by the creation of unconventional family units, accepted by society and legally blessed. Same-sex couples will be the first such unconventional unions. Expect more. Artificial “families” will be seen as a real boon, allowing individuals, over a period of 70 or 80 years, to find the “right” fit within a group, and change to a new one when it makes sense for them to do so, rather than be “stuck” with the same spouse… for eight long decades.
Dude - I mean, Dad - where's my inheritance??
Another area that will be affected by people living longer is wealth transfer. Over the last few years, a number of commentators expected the largest transfer of wealth in history to take place as the large baby boomer generation passed on its accumulated earnings to its progeny. One study estimated a transfer of $41 trillion in the USA alone.
But in the future, if the older generation lives on for another twenty years, there could be two consequences. First, more of the capital of this older generation will be used up, as these old folks continue to spend money on twenty years' worth of food, travel, medical care, and whatever other goodies they may want to blow their wad on in their old age.
Second, the generation on the receiving end of this wealth transfer may not actually get any money or other assets until they themselves are in their 70s. Will this prove to be too late for them to make productive use of it, for example in entrepreneurial ventures that they might have started at age 50 but won't be interested in (or energetic enough to invest in) when they are twenty years older?
Consequences for business
What will be the outcome of all this in terms of changed consumer attitudes and behavior? What business opportunities will it present? What new services and products might especially lend themselves to these new arrangements? What could be the impact on your organization?
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