[SCMP Column] Longevity

October 01, 2018

Forget the millennials, and the “ageist” obsession with youth: the future is old (and female), and the challenge is to ensure that living beyond the age of 100 proves to be an opportunity and an asset, rather than creating a chain problems and burdens.

For me, this challenge is both urgent and immediate. I am coming up close to 68, and feel nowhere near the end of my usefulness. But all around me, the opportunities to remain useful are shutting down. I speak for growing millions. In 2015, an estimated 617m people were over 65 (about 8.7 per cent of the world’s population), but by 2015 this will rise to 1.6bn, accounting on present forecasts for 16.7 per cent of the world’s population.

If the lives of the elderly are not to be “nasty, brutish and long”, then a revolution has to occur – in the workplace, in the education sector, in medicine and in our social institutions. That is why I am in Singapore at an Economist Intelligence Unit conference on longevity – “Is Asia ready for 100?”.

The answer is of course a resounding no – we are not ready. But be in no doubt, it will be in places like Singapore – the third most aged society on the planet (behind Japan and Hong Kong) – that we either succeed or fail. And at my age, I just hope they succeed quickly.

Anchoring the conference was a valuable piece of EIU research on Singapore, funded by the insurance group Prudential, that began from a recognition that by 2030, 900,000 of the island economy’s 5.6m population will be over 65. In Japan, already a quarter of the population has passed 65.

As Singapore surgeon and author Kanwaljit Soin (aged 76) noted: “We need to recognise that older people are the only naturally increasing asset in the world.”

However, the challenge even in carefully planned Singapore is to make sure that these people are truly an asset, rather than an ever-increasing burden: “For the rising longevity to be a positive experience, people in Singapore need to build strength in four key areas that are known to contribute to the length and quality of our years: supportive relationships, health and wellness, financial stability and work,” says the EIU report.

Perhaps inevitably, health and wellness has been the first to attract policy attention – because government health spending budgets are coming under increasing strain, and because of the explosion of age-related chronic illnesses like diabetes, chronic heart disease and dementia.

But this leads straight into a core problem: the health challenge is most noticeable among the aged, but it starts with bad diets and inadequate exercise from the earliest stages of our lives, and is aggravated by medical systems that give priority to remedying sickness over encouraging wellness. As Brian Kennedy, head of Singapore’s Centre for Healthy Ageing, noted, we need to focus not on life-span, but on health-span, on health care rather than sick care.

Kennedy notes that there are at least four non-drug-related ways of extending our healthy lives – sleep quality, mindfulness, stress reduction and exercise and diet. We all nowadays know this well, and give lip service to the need for healthier living, but the EIU research in Singapore showed a wide gap between good intentions and actual habits. We still exercise too little, eat junk and sleep too little.

It is in the financial health maintenance that ignorance starts to be a big problem. As Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott at the London Business School calculated in “The 100-Year Life”, a 20-year-old today who will live to at least 100 (now a 50 per cent probability) and wants to retire earning 50 per cent of their final income, must save at least 10 per cent of their income a year – and will be able to retire sometime in their 80s.

In short, as societies, we are massively ignorant of how inadequately we are saving for security in old age. In Singapore, with their massive compulsory savings scheme, the Central Provident Fund, families come closer than most to saving enough, but most pension schemes worldwide fall far short of providing lifelong financial security – and Hong Kong’s Mandatory Provident Fund is, put bluntly, an embarrassment.

With good reason, therefore, many in old age continue to seek work, both because they need to financially, and because work remains the only way of remaining relevant and engaged. Joe Coughlin, the head of MIT’s Age Lab, notes in his thought-provoking “The Longevity Economy” that one in four Americans over the age of 64 are today actively seeking work.

And this is in spite of the multiple ageist barriers put in their way. Paradoxically, the first and most egregious barrier is forced retirement. In Singapore it is 62.The average is 65. New Zealand is among a tiny minority of countries worldwide that have abandoned any official retirement age. As Lam Ching-choi, Chairman of Hong Kong’s Elderly Commission, noted at the EIU meeting: “Retirement is basically an insane thing, a threat to health, leading to many ailments. It’s pushing people to be unhealthy and lonely. We need to unlearn our ideas about retirement.”

So at the heart of our longevity challenge is employers unfocused and unwilling to abandon employment practices that are no longer fit for purpose, educators unwilling to adjust to the life-time learning needs that are associated with a 60-year working life, and government officials who are complacent, ignorant, and reluctant to bang heads together.

Perhaps most important of all, our over-50s need to reimagine how they will work and retire. As Lilian Myers, managing partner of EconomyFour, noted at the Singapore meeting: “I’m over 50, and I am not old. I’m “mid-century modern” – digital, active and aspiring.”

Lilian – I’m over 60, and I’m with you. A 70-year life comprises 611,000 hours. If you live to 100, that is 873,000 hours. My quest is to use that gift of an extra 260,000 hours as productively, as possible. That reminds me of my favourite word – neoteny: retaining into adulthood our youthful characteristics. That is surely what being “mid-century modern” is all about. There is much reimagining to be done.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own.

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