The New Long Life: A Framework for Flourishing in a Changing World

Andrew J Scott and Lynda Gratton

Bloomsbury, £20.

Review by Iain Macwhirter

A CHILD born in 1914 had a 1% chance of living to the age of 100; a child born today has a 50% chance. Get used to longevity. To paraphrase Doris Day, it's earlier than you think.

Futurologists Andrew Scott and Lynda Gratton say society must abandon the out-dated “three stage, 70-year life” and start thinking about the “60-year career” and the “multi-stage life”. You are going to have to change jobs several times in those six decades and retrain just to remain economically viable.

Indeed, life may become one life-long learning experience, possibly overseen by computers that will assess how much you are keeping up to date in your field. Learning to live will become “living to learn”. We may soon be under benevolent surveillance from Big Data and AI using algorithms to test progress – a bit like corporate Duolingo.

Age itself has to be redefined as “malleable”, not fixed in a straight line from cradle to grave. Just look at the Rolling Stones, they say, as perky and productive in their seventies as they were half a century ago.

Well, up to a point. There are constituencies in Glasgow where many men don't live long enough to collect their state pensions, let alone to the age of 100. They might not be so sanguine at the prospect of abolishing the retirement age, which is the main recommendation of this book.

But Scott and Gratton are right to identify the absurdity of assuming that people cease to be productive by 65. This numerical determinism is past its sell-by date.

In Japan, which is further down the geriatric road than most countries, they're already on to this. There, 30 per cent of over-70s are still working; in the UK fewer than 10 per cent do. The Japanese working age population has fallen by five million since 2012, because of a declining birth rate. However, actual employment has risen in the same period by 4.5m as more older people remain in work.

But aren't “young people just smarter” as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg put it in an unguarded remark quoted here? Andrew Scott and Lynda Gratton are on a crusade to abolish this kind of casual ageism. A third of workers aged between 45 and 74, they claim, experience it.

In fact, people are just as intelligent at 65 as they were at 25 – they just aren't so impulsive, according to the authors. They may not be quite so quick off the mark, but they get things done and make fewer mistakes.

Society needs to stop seeing old people as a burden and start seeing them as an underused economic resource. Enlisting retirees into the workforce could boost economic productivity and growth by almost as much as when women entered the workforce in the latter half of the 20th century.

Scott and Gratton are particularly hostile to the oft-quoted “dependency ratio” – the number of people over 65 divided by the number of people of “working age”. Globally, this is currently around 0.25 and is expected to reach 0.5 by 2100.

In the EU the number of people in what is traditionally called the “working age” category (i.e. under 65), is expected to fall by 20 per cent in the next 40 years. In Japan, the oldest country in the world, it will reach 1.0, meaning one worker for every retired person.

This dependency ratio is often referred to as a “time bomb”, with the implication being that having a lot of old people around is unaffordable. Scott and Gratton argue that this is as economically illiterate as it is offensive to seniors. People aged 65 may have 20 productive years ahead of them, according to the authors.

Indeed, some people will have to get used to working until their late seventies and eighties. Unless you are in the public sector you won't be able to save enough during the conventional working life to sustain a decent living standard into great age. Yet, politicians and most corporations still think in terms of retirement at 65. “This has to change, and change fast”, the authors say. Companies will have to stop thinking about career ladders and start thinking about “horizontal careers” with “multiple points of entry” as people move between occupations over this extended working life.

Scott and Gratton are certainly right to regard older people as productive. However, this rather ignores the digital elephant in the room: technological redundancy. Large numbers of unskilled jobs, and many skilled ones, are likely to disappear in the next half century through automation and artificial intelligence.

Before the pandemic, the Office for National Statistics estimated that 1.5 million jobs are in immediate risk in the UK alone. Many more will have been added to that inventory since lockdown. The big winners have been online retailers like Amazon, which increasingly employ robots.

Is there going to be enough work in future for young people let alone the active old? Scott and Gratton skirt round this by insisting that productivity invariably creates more jobs than it destroys. That is true in the broad sweep of history, but it sometimes takes a while for this goldilocks outcome to be realised.

Then there is over-qualification. Life-long learning is a fine objective, but half the population already enters higher education. More than half of UK university graduates are in jobs which don't require a degree.

You could spend your entire life acquiring degrees and incurring debt without ever actually reaching your intended station in life. Many young people already feel they have had their future stolen from them. They may resent increased competition from smart seniors leaping the career ladder.

Millennials talk dismissively of “gammons” and “Boomers”, blaming them for high property prices and pensions young people can only dream of. Scott and Gratton think they will just have to accept it, just as they accept equality for women and ethnic minorities.

The authors are both professors at the London Business School and largely addressing an elite audience. You imagine global knowledge workers reading this while sipping their skinny lattes on the way to power-point presentations. A good half of this book reads like a self-help manual for middle managers.

One of the problems with life-coach literature is a tendency to coin pretentious ways to state the obvious. We need to turn “recreation into re-creation”; “build stackable and portable credentials”; keep “stepping beyond the veil of ignorance” to see our “possible selves". Who am I to argue?

This is the language of HR and corporate social responsibility reports. Indeed, I suspect Scott and Gratton have a bright 60-year career as consultants taking their five step programme around the corporate conference circuit. Life long learning could be a nice little earner.