Living to the ripe old age of 100 was and still is seen as an exceptional feat of longevity. But by 2050, up to half of the babies born today in developed countries can expect to become centenarians, given current trends in advances in longevity and healthcare.
Coupled with plummeting fertility rates, this means that the industrialized societies of the future will belong to the elderly, as they will vastly outnumber the youth.
This is set to introduce a set of tough challenges to the health and social systems. Cities will have to be redesigned to be functional for a totally different population structure and the way we approach work and life-long education is about to go through a radical shift — that is simply inevitable given the tremendous social impact of having so many people living up to age 100.
To ease pressure on healthcare, we’ll have to not only extend life years but health years too. As for the social system, at least the way it’s designed today, people will have to work longer.
How much longer? According to a report from the Stanford Center on Longevity, those who might live to 100 could expect to work for 60 years or more.
The average retirement age in the U.S. in 2021 was 65 for men and 62 for women. In 1992, it was 62 for men and 59 for women. This means that people could expect to work up to an extra two decades than they do now.
However, the Stanford researchers note that this doesn’t mean that all those 60 years will be intense 40-hour work weeks, nor does it mean there will be a continuous stream of full-time employment. Moreover, most people will likely have more than one career, if current trends are any indication.
Right now, most people walk down a narrow, one-way street: finish school, get hired, then retire. Just one or two vacations per year and maybe some short time off when you’re having a baby, but that’s kind of it.
In the coming decades, however, a more common route might be entering a long hiatus between jobs or switching careers, before ultimately retiring from the workforce for good. These relatively long hiatuses, which may be paid or unpaid, will be required for caregiving, medical reasons, going back to school to learn a new skill that is relevant to employers in the future, and various social transitions.
Work-life balance may have been a toothless political slogan until not too long ago, but not anymore. The Stanford report mentions that job satisfaction is no longer mainly tied to salary, but rather to a host of holistic factors that build upon each other, including opportunities for personal growth, job security, mental stress, industry ethics, flexibility, and interpersonal relationships.
These factors will only grow in importance with time. After all, if we’re to work an extra 20 years over our extended lifespans, there needs to be a way to balance our careers with our health, hobbies, and personal relationships.
A new working structure may also help ease pressure during one of the most difficult phases: midlife. Around age 40 to 45, most people will be at the height of their careers, which also means taking up a lot of work-related responsibility, all the while raising kids and taking care of older relatives through CDPAP. This a balancing act that proves to be too stressful and burdensome to most, but a working structure in which, for instance, two parents are able to cut back to part-time hours during the most family-demanding phases of their lives, while ramping them back over time could help make things much more bearable. And by offsetting lower productivity with more working hours when one’s career can become a priority again, the overall contributions of each worker should be the same.
The traditional way we view retirement is also likely to be subject to disruption. Rather than falling off a cliff, going from full-time employment straight to retirement — something that can be quite shocking and depression-inducing for some — a ‘gliding path’ would involve gradually reducing working hours as we approach retirement.
At the moment, no one is ready to face our predicted longevity. One thing’s for sure though: we’ll have to find a way to adapt. Brace yourself for momentous and creative changes throughout this century.