Published February 24, 2023
10 min read
Five-year-old Peggy Hawkins wants to be a penguin when she grows up. Even at her young age she concedes it’s unlikely, but being pragmatic she has backups, including dancer. Her playful visions of the future reflect the enthusiasm and unconstrained imagination of this cheerful British girl, and while she won’t become a penguin, something almost as confounding is a near certainty: Peggy Hawkins will live to 100.
According to demographers, today’s five-year-olds have a better chance than ever of living to be centenarians, and by 2050 it’ll likely be the norm for newborns in wealthier nations, such as the United States, Europe, or parts of Asia. That longevity means Peggy, and others of her generation, will live lives that are not just longer, but fundamentally different than the lives of their parents and grandparents.
“What worries us about living long is getting old,” says Andrew Scott, a London School of Business economics professor and co-author of The 100-Year Life. Yet Scott reckons fears of a “Silver Tsunami,” with overburdened young workers toiling to keep their decrepit parents in pensions and adult diapers gets it all wrong. “People are living for longer, on average they’re healthier for longer. It’s amazing how we turn this into bad news.”
A century of medical advances already has extended life expectancy, while improving education, growing prosperity, and greater female choice are reducing fertility rates. The world population reached nine billion in November, but the growth rate is slowing with numbers expected to peak mid-century and then start to reduce. Meanwhile, the proportion of over-65s is already one in 10 and set to reach one in four in the US by 2050. A less populated world, inhabited by older people is on the horizon.
In the US, life expectancy has increased by 30 years in the last century but, for the most part, those additional years are simply tacked on at the end, extending the period of retirement, frailty, and disease.
“We’re just making old age longer,” says Laura Carstensen, a psychology professor and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. She sees a different pathway forward. “We have an incredible opportunity to redesign our lives,” she adds, by spreading those additional years throughout life. Think of it more as an extended middle age, than a longer old age.
In the 100-year life even golf gets boring
Peggy’s 100-year life seems off to a good start. The Hawkins family—Peggy, her mother Hattie, a primary school teacher, her father Pete, an artist, and her big sister Molly, aged seven—live in a cottage in the village of Marlesford, Suffolk. She is growing up in one of the world’s advanced economies, with free education and healthcare. She has devoted, attentive parents who make time to spend with her and her sister, encouraging outdoor play, exploration, and fun. “Peggy’s mind is always bubbling,” says Hattie.
As Peggy gets older, her life will be accompanied by day-to-day technological advances—such as 3D printed braces to straighten her teenaged teeth, wearable diagnostic devices and biosensors to track her health and forestall disease, or a bionic exoskeleton to ease her muscles in later life. Yet for Peggy and her generation to realize the opportunities that longevity affords, and avoid the pitfalls of ill health and running out of money, that will require society to remake virtually how every stage of life is lived. But we’re not even close to tackling that.
Today, life is broadly conceived as a three-stage, linear process: 20 years of education, 45 years of work, then retirement. It is a model that values students for their potential to become workers. workers for working, and retirees not at all. But when you can reasonably expect to live decades longer, retiring at 65, for example, no longer makes sense—not economically, not socially, and not personally. Plus, it’s tedious, even for the most avid golfer.
“You retire and then your role is to fade away. Well, that doesn’t work for 40 years,” says Carstensen.
The three-stage life is made for a world that no longer exists and will be replaced with “a multi-stage life… that is much more flexible,” says Scott. The fluidity that will characterize Peggy’s life is already happening. The teenager was a mid-20th century invention—before that you were simply a child and then a worker. Today, more young adults are delaying leaving home, delaying having children, delaying taking on many of the trappings of adult life.
Can working for 60 years be fun?
A life designed for longevity starts with education that is extended—beginning later and lasting longer—with additional years early on for play, and gap years for high school students to take jobs or do volunteer work. The same goes for college education. “Let’s give kids a break,” says Carstensen. “These extra years means the pace of life can actually slow.” Education will continue throughout life. Some universities already offer a “60-year curriculum” aimed at keeping workers up to date in a fast-changing employment market.
Work, too, will be reinvented. “The big shadow hanging over longer lives is that you can’t avoid having to work for longer,” says Scott. To pay for longer lives, working lives must be longer too, but work will be more flexible. Lifetime work could involve the same number of hours, but spread across 50 or 60 years instead of 30 or 40, with career breaks, part-time work, and switching jobs at different stages of life.
“That means three-day work weeks, sabbaticals, time off to bring up children, then back to work, time off to care for elderly parents or grandchildren, then back to work,” says Sarah Harper, University of Oxford gerontology professor and director of the Oxford Institute for Population Ageing. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown flexibility unheard of before it began, with four-day weeks proving popular with companies and workers, according to a new UK study, while the growth of the freelance gig economy offers an alternative to the outdated job-for-life.
Retirement itself will also evolve. Nineteenth century German chancellor Otto van Bismark was the first to introduce pensions at a time when European life expectancy was only 40. “The equivalent of that state pension age now would be 103,” Harper says. Our 70s have replaced our 60s as “the decade of decline” and that decline is being pushed further as we live longer. “For the majority of today’s five-year-olds, 82 will be like 60 today.”.
The latter stages of Peggy’s working life might involve part-time work, mentoring, or volunteering—all opportunities to be productive and spend time with people from different generations, helping erode social barriers and ageist attitudes. Flexible work lives also means “a lot of responsibility is put on individuals,” says Scott. “Today’s five-year-olds are going to have to manage their careers much more than previous generations.”
They will have to manage their health too in order to reduce the impact of non-communicable diseases for which age is a threat multiplier, such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and diabetes. New treatments for the diseases of aging may emerge, but simple lifestyle decisions are the best defense in trying to ensure life spans and healthy life spans align more closely: eat well, exercise regularly, don’t smoke, don’t drink too much.
With health come opportunities. The French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, in her 1970 book The Coming of Age, wrote that most people approach old age “with sorrow and rebellion”, seeing it as worse than death, but de Beauvoir finds an answer in purpose. “There is only one solution if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our former life, and that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence a meaning,” she writes.
The 100-year life isn’t about striving to stay younger for longer, it’s about staying healthy enough and connected enough to maintain a sense of purpose, whether it’s found in the workplace, family, or community.
“The best way to be a successfully aging old person is to be a successfully aging middle aged person,” laughs John Rowe, citing himself. At nearly 80, Rowe is a health policy professor at Columbia University, following earlier careers as a biomedical researcher, a Harvard professor, an academic administrator, and a health insurance executive. “I’m working full time, I think I’m contributing, I’m certainly enjoying myself,” he says.
The first five years of life—Peggy’s entire existence so far—are the foundation of future health and wellbeing. The message of longevity is to slow down, stay healthy, and spend time with the people that matter. “Our best times together, and when the girls come alive, is when we go on a walk,” says Peggy’s mother, Hattie. “That’s where all the good chat comes, when they’re given the time and the space, and suddenly they start telling us everything, all the stuff they find interesting.”