The age of longevity: A social Tsunami


In America, a 70-year-old man today has a 2% chance of dying within a year; in 1940 this mortality milestone was passed at age 56. Britain, which had just 24 hundred-year-old people a century ago, now has nearly 15,000. Global average life expectancy has increased by 5.6 years since 2000, the fastest increase since the 1960s. Life expectancy in Africa increased by more than 10 years in this period.

The population replacement rate (the fertility rate needed to maintain a society’s population size) is 2.1 children per woman. 


South Africa’s rate is 2.4; Africa’s average is around 4.7. 


At the same time, births have plummeted almost everywhere outside sub-Saharan Africa. The global fertility rate today is around 2.4 children per woman (1.7 in most developed nations), approximately half of what it was in 1950. 

The population replacement rate (the fertility rate needed to maintain a society’s population size) is 2.1 children per woman. South Africa’s rate is 2.4; Africa’s average is around 4.7. 

The global fertility rate is expected to be 1.9 births per woman by 2100. From 2073, there are projected to be more people aged 65 and older than under the age of 15 – the first time ever this will be the case. 



For one, they may alter the balance of power between countries. The most important supremacy shift is likely to be between the US and China. 

China will grow old before it gets rich. The country’s one-child policy is leaving its mark in the form of a shrinking labour force, aggravated by its workforce still retiring between 50 and 60. Its population of people over 65 is expected to jump from 8% to 24% in just 30 years.

Regionally, Africa is likely to become the only ‘young continent’ on earth, which implies it will be a lucrative source of labour and a target market for young shoppers. 

We may see intensified efforts to encourage more women to do paid work. Women’s participation in the labour market lags men’s in all but three countries worldwide. Governments may also increasingly pull the policy levers to lower financial incentives (taxes or benefits) to retiring early and increase enticements for people to work for longer.


For us as individuals, a potentially longer life necessitates a relook at how to stay productive for longer – not only to deal with the obvious financial realities accompanying a longer life, but also to stay fulfilled, connected, stimulated and growing as a person. 

Retirement  at 60 (never mind ‘early retirement’) is dissolving as a social construct. 

‘Un-retiring’ is consequently a major new phenomenon in countries with a growing population of older people. The world is effectively witnessing the birth of an extended middle age. The ‘young-old’, a new description for people aged 60 to 75, is notably more active, healthy and productive than their peers of 30 years ago. 

A study by the Pew Research Center found that in the developed world 54% of workers older than 65 are still employed because they want to be, not because they need the money. This means they’re motivated by desire or passion. The survey also found that 54% of workers aged 65 and older say they are ‘completely satisfied’ with their jobs, compared with just 29% of workers aged 16 to 64.

The corporate world has been slow to catch up to this second-coming of careers. 

Many employers remain reluctant to hire people over 50, stuck in a mindset that older workers are dull, worn-out plodders. A study by Deloitte found that only 18% of US businesses view older workers as an advantage to their organisation. The current employment paradigm therefore doesn’t really provide for older, skilled people who don’t need the lure of promotion or financial incentives but are motivated by the job itself, social integration, more flexibility and making a valuable contribution. 

In most countries, the compulsory corporate retirement age has barely shifted over the past century. When Otto von Bismarck brought in the first formal pensions in the 1880s, payable from age 70 (later reduced to 65), life expectancy in his homeland, Prussia, was 45. Today, in wealthy countries, 90% of the population live to celebrate their 65th birthday, mostly in good health, yet 50 is still seen as the starting point of old age. Labour markets and social-support systems still assume a sudden cliff-edge at 60 or 65. Yet, US research shows that even the number of people aged 85 to 89 who were classified as disabled fell from 22% in 1984 to around 10% today.

Employers ignore the ‘young-old’ at their peril. Research by Harvard Business Review indicates that the average age of US founders of the highest-growth startups is now 47 – and that the 50-plus population will start more businesses in the years ahead than any other age group. Carmaker BMW boosted productivity by 7% when it created a product line for skilled workers over 50.



How should you think about this ‘post-retirement’ life, where 80 is the new 65? What can you do to arrive at this unfamiliar new age bracket in a productive state? 


Start by caring for your health.

It’s all about basic lifestyle behaviours. A number of studies around the world have identified exercise as the single most powerful predictor of whether we will age well. King’s College research shows that endurance cyclists in their 60s and those in their 20s had very similar immune systems, strength and muscle mass. 

And, of course, what we consume matters. The decline in smoking since the 1970s has massively reduced deaths from heart attacks and stroke in the past two generations. Life expectancy at 65, for instance, rose 20 times faster after 1970 than in the preceding 130 years. Smoking has, however, been replaced by obesity, and the life-shortening diseases with which it is associated. This is causing the acceleration in life expectancy to level off in many countries. 


Professionally, it’s important to break with the idea of a three-stage, sequential life model: learn, work, retire.

In an age of longevity, this model is not reliable anymore. It has to be replaced by a multistage model where one-off, full-time education needn’t be rushed, and iterative learning, re-informing yourself and constantly developing new skills are part of life – irrespective of age. In this model, letting go of primary professions at certain points in your life may become the norm, along with exchanging old associates for new (cross-cultural, industry-neutral, younger) networks, and developing a different form of value-add. And a one-off retirement would be replaced by intermittent retreats and stints of fresh personal investment, replacing ‘rest’ with ‘zest’.

When the three-stage lockstep disappears, so does much of the predictability of age. Age is not stage anymore. The key to unlocking this longevity dividend is firstly a shift in mindset. Secondly, it’s about the choices you make now to ensure your flexibility in future. 

The system is lagging, and it’s your responsibility to shape your own model. We need to plan and prepare for a ‘one-and-a-half’ life, physiologically, professionally and financially.

You will have to challenge the classical model of ‘a life’ and go off-script.