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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Making the world work for older people will be an intergenerational win-win

Published 20 June 2024 in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion • 8 min read

The world is on the verge of a longevity revolution, but we need to shift to viewing longer lifespans as an opportunity, not a burden. Managed positively and productively, this will reap dividends for individuals, society, and the economy.

In 1900, the average life expectancy of a newborn human being was 32 years. By 2021 this had more than doubled to 71 years. This trend is set to continue, representing a seismic demographic shift that will require a response from government and policymakers, society at large, the education and training sector, companies, and, last but not least, the individual.

In my book, The Longevity Imperative: Building a Better Society for Healthier, Longer Lives, I look at the aging issue through the lens of creating an ‘evergreen’ agenda, where an evergreen plant is one that “remains green and functional through more than one growing season.” In a wider sense, the word means remaining “universally and continually relevant.”

That is what we need to achieve over our longer lives. We need to make sure that our health and all the other things that matter to us extend to match our now longer lifespan. Past progress created longer lives. Future progress is about how we make the most of this additional time by changing the way we age.

Let’s unpack that and look at some of the challenges to achieving that, and some of the possible solutions.

Closeup image of a woman hiking with trekking boots on the top of mountain
In an evergreen world, maintaining our health will increasingly be influenced by actions happening further away from doctors and hospitals

Challenging attitudes to aging

As a snapshot of attitudes to this topic, I teach a course on the world economy at London Business School where I ask students to tell me about the megatrends that will affect their lives and careers over the coming decades. Predictably, artificial Intelligence and climate change are normally the first topics suggested and after we’ve discussed the implications of those, a wide range of other topics are mentioned and someone will sometimes suggest ‘demographic change’. When we narrow this down to aging, it’s invariably a negative conversation about ‘more old people’ – a bad news story. Their enthusiasm for debating the positives of AI and sustainability does not extend to the opportunities of aging, just the costs – it is never seen as engaging, exciting, or interesting. And this attitude has a knock-on effect on the aging debate.

For example, our society predominantly treats aging as a process of terminal decline, consequently, our current healthcare systems generally focus on treating illness, whereas living a longer, healthier life prompts a move towards preventative care and promoting healthy aging throughout life.

In an evergreen world, maintaining our health will increasingly be influenced by actions happening further away from doctors and hospitals. How we age is affected by everything from the built environment to the nature of work, public transport, loneliness, what we eat, financial security, agism, education, design, water and sanitation, and much more. The health system becomes much wider in an evergreen world.

When it comes to aging, public health once more needs to be a first line of defense. Six areas should be the major focus: smoking, alcohol, air pollution, social isolation, lack of physical activity, and obesity.

Aging concept. Comparison of young and old. Real result achieved with work of professional makeup artist. Not CGI.
“Blackrock CEO, Larry Fink, called for a national discussion on redefining the retirement age, noting that the traditional benchmark of 65 years is outdated.”

A cost or a contributor – time for a radical re-think?

In the economy and finance, again we see an approach that regards older people as a cost and a burden and not as contributors throughout their lives. In this context, traditional retirement plans and work structures won’t suffice.

Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, covered the issue of aging and retirement in his 2024 letter, highlighting several critical points – primarily related to the situation in the United States of America – and proposing changes to address what he characterizes as a growing crisis.

Fink called for a national discussion on redefining the retirement age, noting that the traditional benchmark of 65 years is outdated. He suggested that rather than simply raising the retirement age, a more balanced approach would be to encourage people to stay in the workforce longer while also ensuring they have the flexibility to retire when they wish.

I think Larry Fink and I are more or less saying the same things, but he seems to be concentrating on ‘fixing a problem’ and, while I recognize the challenges, I want to explore the holistic opportunities presented by an aging population. This is because, increasing the contribution to your pension, or government policies that add a year here and there to ‘the official retirement age’ are tinkering at the edges of the issue. In terms of solutions, as a society, we must explore radical options like working longer being expected and being the norm, redesigning pensions, or even phasing out retirement completely. The focus must shift to financial security throughout a longer lifespan.

These are among the reasons why we need to change our attitude to age away from Saga Cruises, adult diapers, and care homes. After all, even the young are simply people who are not yet old and therefore there is a need for a healthy, inclusive debate about what we want from a society in which the proportion of older people continues to grow.

In this context, the conundrum is easy to see. It’s just not possible to expect fewer and fewer workers to support more and more pensioners. Coupled with this, the current three-stage career of 25 years in education, 35 years in work, and 35 years retired is not sustainable.

“We need to prepare for careers that could last years longer than they officially do today.”

The role of education and its impact on careers

We need to prepare for careers that could last years longer than they officially do today. Continuous learning and skill development become essential. As workers segue in and out of work and in and out of education as they up-skill and re-skill to remain relevant, educational and training institutions and systems may need to adapt to cater to lifelong learning.

The company and the workplace can also make a major contribution to including older workers in their workforce for longer. One of these interventions is for companies to identify or develop age-friendly jobs to promote the employability of workers throughout their working lives – something the OECD has been pushing since 2019. On the market side, this also makes sense as many more consumers will be older people, and being served by older people who understand their issues and priorities is good for company branding and reputation.

As we redefine our concept of aging (and we must), instead of a period of decline, a social and cultural shift is needed to view aging as a chance to support a longer-lived population and for those people to enjoy continued growth, contribution, and fulfillment.

What we can do as individuals

For the individual, it’s important to think about and act on the following:

Mix it up: As your working life extends, understand that the careers will become multistage. Maintaining health, relationships, skills, and purpose over a longer time will require shifts and transitions as you focus on different outcomes. Instead of looking forward to a time of final, idle retirement, you should be able to plan time off and time out throughout your career when you can enjoy it more.

Be prepared: To be prepared to thrive in a multistage life, expect voluntary and involuntary transitions in and out of work and think about your finances, your professional and personal networks, and your identity.

Back to school: Keep yourself up to date – education won’t end after college and you will be in and out of education and training, either in blocks or through continuous and simultaneous learning as you work.

Diversifying for the future: To be future-proof, you need a good base on which to build a productive and sustainable career. Build skills for today’s job, but also focus on how that job prepares you for the next transition. Take a self-audit: Are you working in a declining sector? Is your job age-friendly enough to provide you with employment for decades to come? Do you have transferrable skills to make you relevant to employers in other sectors – and can you see yourself persuading a new employer of that?

Going beyond the peak: In a linear career, ‘the only way is up’ with promotion and pay increases. A multistage career will look different, as it’s viewed through the lens of a lifetime, where you may want to take mid-career breaks for education or for your own plans, and transition to less responsibility and less pressure in later life. These jobs will pay less. But it is lifetime income that matters, not that your income continues to rise every year.

As we redefine our concept of aging (and we must), instead of a period of decline, a social and cultural shift is needed to view aging as a chance to support a longer-living population and for those people to enjoy continued growth, contribution, and fulfillment.

Whilst my book details a variety of specific policy changes across healthcare, finance, education, and work structures and guidance on managing health, finances, and careers for a longer life, I strongly believe that longevity is an opportunity, not a problem. By proactively adapting various sectors of society and our own mindsets, we can reap the benefits of longer, healthier lives and the result can be a more productive and prosperous future for all.

The Longevity Imperative. Building a Better Society for Healthier, Longer Lives is published by Basic Books.


Andrew J Scott

Andrew J Scott

Professor of Economics at London Business School

Andrew J Scott is Professor of Economics at London Business School, a Research Fellow at the Centre for Economic Policy Research, and a co-founder of The Longevity Forum. He holds a PhD from Oxford University and has previously held positions at Oxford University, Harvard University, and the London School of Economics. 

Scott’s research focuses on the economics of longevity and aging and is published in a wide range of leading academic journals. He has advised through a variety of roles a range of governments, institutions, and companies. His award-winning book, The 100-Year Life, is a global bestseller, having sold a million copies. His new book, The Longevity Imperative, was published in March 2024. 


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