Governments and Employers Need to Get Real About Longevity
How a few countries and programs get it and why others need to
As lifespans lengthen around the world, men and women are: delaying when they marry and have children; returning to school as adults to gain skills and working beyond traditional retirement age. In countries as dissimilar as Japan and Morocco, they’re marrying five to 10 years later on average than their parents did. In the United Kingdom, more women are having babies in their 40s than before turning 20. And in the U.S., most employees 50 and older say they want to keep working after turning 65.
Now, governments and businesses need to catch up to individuals’ efforts adapting to longevity. The policymakers and employers have to revise their work, education, health care and other policies once designed for much shorter, different lives.
“Singapore’s only resource is human capital, and our population is aging faster than in any other country. We realized we had to address this to survive.”
That was the consensus of economists, physicians, executives, educators and others from almost every continent who met at the Rockefeller Bellagio Center in Italy this fall to begin charting a global longevity agenda. The conference, organized by the Stanford Center on Longevity and The Longevity Forum with support from the Rockefeller Foundation and Prudential Assurance Singapore, was the first major interdisciplinary global convening on longevity. (You can read more about it on the Stanford Center on Longevity site.)
“If we live a hundred-year life using the same norms that worked for sixty or seventy years, it’s unlikely to be a good long life,” said Andrew Scott, an economics professor at University of London, co-organizer of the conference and co-author of The 100-Year Life. “And while there’s much that individuals need to do to adjust, they won’t be able to seize the advantages of longer lives without policy changes from governments, corporations and other institutions.”
The conference participants discussed numerous, varied issues, such as:
- The benefits of assisting younger and older generations
- The recognition that aging is malleable — with even small improvements in diet, exercise or the environment affecting how long we live
- Why chronological age increasingly is a poor measure of what it means to be old
- The importance of supporting flexible, multistage life paths
What Singapore Is Doing Wisely About Longevity
While many countries have begun addressing longevity, the most comprehensive planning is occurring in Singapore. In that country, the average life expectancy is 85 — among the highest in the world — and about 24% of the labor force is 55 or older, up from 14% in 2008.
But Singapore isn’t focusing on building nursing homes. Instead, the island city-nation is investing $3 billion to support lifelong learning and employability, health and wellness, financial literacy and multi-generational housing, among other initiatives.
“Singapore’s only resource is human capital, and our population is aging faster than in any other country. We realized we had to address this to survive,” John Eu-Li Wong, professor in medical sciences and senior vice president, National University of Singapore, told participants at the Bellagio conference.
The country’s longevity agenda was also discussed at a November conference in Singapore, also supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and Prudential Assurance Singapore.
To sustain economic growth, Singapore over the next decade is raising its retirement age from 62 to 65 and requiring employers to reemploy men and women who want to work until at least 70. The government there also gives businesses a 3 percent credit to offset wages of employees over 50 and makes grants to companies so they can modify jobs for older workers.
In addition, wellness programs in all communities include regular screenings for chronic diseases, and activities such as Tai Chi and dance lessons. National Silver Academy, a network of colleges and community-based organizations, offers post-secondary education to older people, who can take courses in technology, business, literature and other subjects, and who often share classrooms with youth. A SkillsFuture program teaches Singaporeans of all ages necessary skills for future jobs, and a MoneySense program teaches young and old alike how to manage money and invest.
Singapore’s small size (population: just 5.8 million) and a lack of U.S.-style partisan politics battles make it easier to implement a nationwide longevity plan. But its effort to harness the advantages of being an aging society is a model for other countries, said Laura Carstensen, executive director of the Stanford Center on Longevity and co-leader of the Bellagio conference.
“Instead of focusing on frail old age, Singapore is trying to support people all the way through their long lives," Carstensen noted. "It’s changing the narrative from ‘aging is a burden’ to ‘longevity is an opportunity.’”
What Some Developing and Developed Nations Are Doing
Developing nations are beginning to launch age-friendly programs while continuing to grapple with problems like providing clean water and building adequate roads.
In Bangladesh, where average life expectancy has risen to about 73 from 48 in 1960, a strong network of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is taking the lead in addressing aging and longevity.
For example, Dhaka-based BRAC (formerly called the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee), the world’s largest NGO, is funding research and treatment of hypertension, diabetes and other noncommunicable diseases. BRAC also offers microloans to adults seeking to start small businesses. Such efforts are enabling Bangladeshi to live longer and more prosperous lives.
Wealthier, developed countries looking at longevity often have an array of uncoordinated programs to help residents stay productive and healthy longer. Some have been launched by governments; others by nonprofits or private companies.
In the United Kingdom, The Pension Advisory Service (TPAS) and insurer Aviva are experimenting with programs to help middle-aged people evaluate their jobs, finances and health, as well as their plans for later in life. In 2018, TPAS targeted a small group of self-employed workers, aged 35 to 50, with one-to-one phone conversations. There are now plans to make this midlife checkup an online program.
“Just like when you take your car to the garage,” UK Pensions Minister Guy Opperman said when launching the program, this service “will highlight where improvements might be made to ensure everything is running smoothly.” Aviva initially enrolled about 100 employees in workshops; it will offer the programs to all UK employees 45 and older.
Many European countries, including Denmark and Finland, now offer digital literacy training to adults. The goal: ensuring that older as well as younger people aren’t excluded from an increasingly digitized world.
In Ireland, where just 17% of those aged 65 to 74 have at least basic digital literacy skills, according to a 2017 Eurostat survey, the government has funded several nonprofits to provide 10 hours of free computer instruction to anyone who has never used the Internet. It’s targeted for people over 45 and those who live in rural areas, are disabled or unemployed.
What About the U.S.?
In the U.S., the federal government and most employers are not yet doing much to address longevity. Yet, as Kerry Hannon wrote on MarketWatch, Americans 65 to 74 and age 75 and older are expected to have faster annual rates of labor force growth than others. And just 77% of workers surveyed by the Transamerica Retirement Study said their employer is supportive of working past 65.
But U.S.-based nonprofits like Encore.org are tapping the potential of longer lives and intergenerational connections to help solve social problems. And ones such as iRelaunch and PathForward help midlifers re-enter the workplace after absences or layoffs.
Most people, whether they live in San Francisco or Singapore, “when asked about their aspirations for living until 100, say ‘I hope I don’t outlive my money,’ or ‘I hope I don’t get dementia,’ “ said Carstensen. “It’s time to overcome those anxieties by envisioning, and sharing, all the ways we can use our extra time to improve the quality of our lives.”