Sometimes the future doesn’t turn out as you had predicted. Whatever happened to Second Life and the avatars that I – and thousands of others – created? And let’s face it, Uber caught most of us by surprise – and yet now we have no qualms getting into a stranger's car. Sometimes the future hurtles in unexpected directions, and we just have to learn to catch up.
In some cases, however, the signs are there for all to see. Yet we just don’t notice them, or we misinterpret them. The future creeps up on us. For me, longevity falls into this category.
Longevity: a creeping curse?
I’ve been studying the trends that will shape the future of work and living for decades. I’ve written about technology and societal trends and the impact of globalization and have certainly always been peripherally aware of demographic trends. I’d seen the inverted age pyramid of Japan and knew that more than a quarter of the country’s population is over the age of 65. Initially, I interpreted this primarily as an issue of ageing, the last decade of life, and of pension provision. I’d seen this demographic data as a curse – when life elongates surely that just means more years of ageing diseases such as Alzheimer’s? It was not something I particular wanted to think about, to study or to write about.
What changed, was that my colleague Andrew Scott and I began to talk more about these demographic trends – and as we did so, we began to reframe the trend data. In fact, rather than looking only at the last decades of life, we began instead to see that longevity impacts on every stage of life. Once you reframe in this way the trend data is extraordinary. Imagine that for every year of life, life expectancy increases by three months. Most of us will live significantly longer than our parents, and right now many babies born today are expected to live for at least 100 years.
The implications are that across the space of the next two generations, individuals, institutions and governments will have to accommodate to two, possibly three more decades of life – and that’s what really caught our attention.
Reframing longevity as a gift
Andrew and I are both academics – he an economist, I a psychologist. The way we normally study the world is by looking at it closely. But how many people currently have lived to 100 years, and can their life experience really tell us much about the future?
So rather than observing what we can see around us now, we decided to project into the future. To do this we took one young woman, whom we called Jane, and built for her a series of scenarios about how she could live the rest of her 100-year life. As we built Jane’s life story, we began to reframe longevity as a gift rather than a curse, focusing on how she could live in a productive and happy way. Our aim was to explore what her possible future lives could be and to play out the consequences of the decisions she might make at various points in her life.
Building these scenarios was fascinating. It taught us a lot of things, which we were eager to share. That’s why we wrote The 100-year Life: living and working in the age of longevity. We believe the conversation about longevity is crucial - and that every one of us needs to re-learn how we plan our lives and our careers.