Provided your quality of life is close to your expectations, living longer has simply got to be a good thing. In fact, the idea of a long life being a good one is the central assumption of a new book analysing the implications of improved longevity. ‘The 100-Year Life’ takes it as axiomatic that we all want to live longer, while examining just what that might mean, as we find ourselves with more time on our hands, but potentially less to occupy it. On the other side of the coin, for governments, employers and financial institutions, the fact that we’re going to live longer is a pension-shaped elephant in the room that they’d prefer to ignore.
Although there’s plenty of appealing maths about longevity distribution in the book, there’s also a simple chain of facts that says: because of improvements in health education we know how to live longer; developments in technology mean that we can now tackle life-ending disease better than ever before; more developments in technology will make our lives easier in terms of hours we need to commit to work, and somehow we’ve got to find a way to pay for it all.
The key statistic here is that half of the children alive today will live to 100. But before we get too carried away, one half of the authorship duo responsible for ‘The 100-Year Life’, Andrew Scott, says that while informally we might like to think in terms of “all of us living longer, what we are really talking about is a trend increase in life expectancy”. As yet, there are very few signs that this trend is coming to an end. Scott, who is also a Professor of Economics at the London Business School, elaborates by saying that the trend got off to a good start when we “cracked” infant mortality, followed by combating the diseases of middle age. “But recently we have started to see significant improvements in the survival rates of people in their seventies, eighties and nineties. Survival rates for 70-year-olds today are akin to what they were for 60-year-olds a few decades ago, and so in that respect 70 really is the new 60. The big question is why.”
Scott says that when you look into the causes for the increase in the trend – economy, technology, healthcare, education – “they are all controversial. Science has played a role, but its significance has been greatly exaggerated.”
Far more significant, he says, is nutrition education for expectant mothers along with improvements in hygiene and medical procedures. “Of course, scientific research has done wonders in terms of the prevention of heart disease, but it’s important to realise that without the link to public health education the impact is lower. But when it comes to our ability to combat cancer, this is definitely linked to improvements in technology and research.”
To understand the big issues related to longevity, Scott says its important to separate mortality and morbidity, where the former is about when you’re going to die, while the latter is about how well you’ll function until the point when you do. “Morbidity is where you start to see technology coming into its own in terms of the individual, with hip and knee replacements. But the interesting thing about technology isn’t so much what’s happening today, as the future it brings with it.”
When it comes to understanding this future, according to Scott, the world of demography is divided into three groups. First, there are the ‘levellers’ who say, “look, we’ve reached the point where the average is 80, and that’s as good as it’s going to get”. Second, there are the ‘extrapolators’ who argue that the trend “will continue to about 120 before it levels off, and there are still gains to be had because technology and education will carry on improving, but the big gains have already happened”. Finally, there are the ‘accelerators’ who base their assumptions on the belief that “we are on the verge of major breakthroughs in scientific and technological research that will increase longevity”.
Included in the latter group are companies such as Google, which has invested $700m in establishing Calico (the California Life Company), with the goal of focusing on “health, well-being and longevity”. What this is leading to, says Scott, is “research that is basically trying to defeat ageing, where the idea is that ageing becomes treated like a disease and as such is not inevitable. Whereas in the past medical research has focused on why, say, the heart or the lungs go wrong, what we are seeing now is research looking at the cell and ageing as a whole process. The result is that today there are plenty of claims that science is beginning to slow down the process. If you listen to some of the more radical thoughts on this, there are claims being made that the first person to live to 1,000 has already been born.”
Scott summarises the story so far by saying that the average age expectancy is “shooting along” – we can make people live for longer and there’s a lot of scientific progress that will eventually end up “with nanotechnology putting little bots inside your body to look after things”. But there is a downside characterised by a general fear of being unable to finance an indefinite future, along with having to experience it in a state of decrepitude. “The big problem with technology at the moment is that we are stretching mortality faster than we are dealing with morbidity”. In other words, the challenge technology has isn’t so much to make our lives longer, but to make our longer lives more liveable.
‘The 100-Year Life’ is something of a curiosity in that, while clearly aimed at the management market, it has been something of a breakout title. Since being shortlisted for the Financial Times Business Book of the Year it has started to appear on bestseller lists, which is perhaps no real surprise if we take the book’s central assumption – that we all want to live longer – at face value. But there is also a low level of warning running through it. Be careful what you wish for.
‘The 100 Year Life’ by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott is published by Bloomsbury, £18.99
We read it for you
The 100-Year Life
Most of us will have been brought up to think that life is a three-card trick that follows the predictable narrative of education, work and retirement. But, say the authors of ‘The 100-Year Life’, this is predicated on the traditional notion of life expectancy in the region of ‘three score years and ten’. As developments in factors such as technology and health education push the average life expectancy ever nearer the century mark, we will need to rip up the programme and rethink exactly how many phases our lives will really have and how we approach them. If we are all going to live to 100 in the future, will that mean that we will be spending 70 of them working? Will new technology be doing our jobs for us? How will we finance our endless free time? And, critically, what will our quality of life be like? The 100-Year Life goes some way to answering these questions.
Of Rice and Chips
In 1965, Intel’s Gordon E Moore conjectured that the processing power of semiconductors would double roughly every two years, and to date this has been an accurate prediction.
As a consequence of this exponential growth, ‘Second Machine Age’ proponents argue that we are now in the ‘second half of the chessboard’. This is a reference to a fable concerning a king of India who, bored with all his existing pastimes, set a challenge to his kingdom to come up with a better form of entertainment. When presented with an early form of chess the king was so delighted he offered its inventor anything he wanted.
The inventor requested rice: one grain on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, eight on the fourth and so on. The king soon realised that he didn’t have enough rice to meet the challenge, running out before the thirtieth square (before the second half of the chessboard).
To meet the inventor’s demand the king would have needed a mountain of rice the size of Mount Everest – about 18.5 quintillion grains. The parallel with Moore’s Law is obvious.
Back in 1981 Bill Gates said that 640K of RAM ‘ought to be enough for anybody’. Thirty years later, not only did computers have huge processing power, but the increase over the next two years is enormous compared with cumulative past progress. The increase in processing power required to move from the 32nd square to the 35th is four times the cumulative sum of processing power across the first 32 squares.
In other words, if Moore’s Law continues to function, over the next eight years computational power will increase fourfold over and above the level of technology that is currently going into driverless cars.
Edited extract from ‘The 100 Year Life’ by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, reproduced with permission.