Leader: the 100-year-life

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

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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