Centenarians in Paraguay. Getty
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Leader: the 100-year-life

Too often, ageing societies are treated as problematic. Yet past generations would have marvelled at our longevity

A 100th birthday used to be so rare that, in many countries, it was deemed worthy of special recognition. In Japan, a centenarian was given a silver dish; in the UK, he or she received a card of congratulation from the Queen. Today, living for 100 years is so common that Japan gives out cheaper dishes, and the number employed to send the Queen’s cards has risen from one to seven in a decade.

As Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott conclude in their recent book The 100-Year Life, we in the West are crossing into an extraordinary period of longevity. Since the 19th century, advances in reducing infant mortality and fighting disease – along with rising incomes, improved nutrition and better public health and education systems – have added two to three years of life expectancy every decade.

A 60-year-old in the West today has an even chance of ­living to 90 and a 40-year-old can expect to live to 95. In the early 1900s, the probability of a baby reaching 100 was 1 per cent. A newborn in the UK today has a 50 per cent chance of living to 105.

For some, such as the Silicon Valley gurus preaching immortality, this is not long enough, as John Gray observes in a review-essay in this week's issue. Others are content with making the most of their extended lives. In a feature beginning on page 46, Xan Rice celebrates the achievements of the “super-ager” athletes and adventurers such as Min Bahadur Sherchan, an 85-year-old former Gurkha who plans to climb Everest next month and reclaim his record as the oldest person to scale the peak. In an interview on page 44, Michael Bond, the 91-year-old author of the Paddington Bear books, tells us how he sits down at his writing desk at 9am, seven days a week, to put in an eight-hour shift, even on Christmas Day.

Others may be appalled at the prospect of such a long life, given the implications for social care and their finances. For the state, as well as individuals, the increase in life expectancy creates risks as well as opportunities. The Office for Budget Responsibility has warned that the UK’s public finances are on an “unsustainable path”, a result of the rising cost of health care and pensions. In the absence of tax rises or spending cuts, the national debt will surge from 85 per cent of GDP to 234 per cent by 2066-67.

The strain on Britain’s public realm is already showing. Sustained cuts to social care have forced hospitals to keep patients for longer, at a greater expense to the taxpayer. After providing £2bn for social care in the Budget (following a £4.6bn cut since 2010), the Conservative government has promised a green paper on future funding options (though it has ruled out a levy on estates). If it is to succeed where its predecessors have failed, it will need to accept politically unpalatable choices, such as raising taxes or closing hospitals.

The demographic challenge, combined with those of automation and new approaches to work, necessitates creative action by the state and businesses. Education, which ends for most of us in our early twenties, must become a lifelong pursuit, enabling workers to retrain in mid-life and mid-career if necessary. More than a million people work beyond the age of 65 in the UK (double the figure in 2004). Firms should be given incentives to hire older employees.

The UK’s fiscal sustainability also depends on attracting immigrants, who are typically younger and healthier than the general population and contribute more to the public purse than they claim. As an increasing number of Brexiteers concede, although the UK is leaving the EU, it will continue to rely on Euro­pean migrants. Were net migration to be reduced to the “tens of thousands” a year, as the government has pledged, there would be an inevitable economic cost.

The political risk is of gerontocracy, as older voters (who disproportionately turn out at elections) skew policy priorities. It is the young who have shouldered the greatest burden of austerity since 2010. Yet the cost of social care and housing frequently falls collectively on families. All age groups have an interest in imaginative solutions. Rather than irresponsibly stoking a clash of generations, politicians should propose a contract between them.

Too often, ageing societies are treated as problematic. Yet past generations would have marvelled at our longevity. The danger is of political and economic inertia leading to avoidable crises. Longer life should be a benefit, not a burden.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”