In his essay “De Senectute”, Cicero says there are four reasons why people write off old age: It stops you from working, it makes your body weak, it denies you pleasure and every day is one step closer to death.
He then dismantles each argument. “The old retain their wits quite well,” he notes, “so long as they exercise them.” A child born in the West today has a better than 50-50 chance of living beyond 105 and ageing populations create immense challenges.
Governments must ensure pensions, health and social care can be funded for increasing numbers of elderly, while the ratio of working-age people to the retired in rich countries is projected to halve by 2050, from four to one to two to one.
Yet increasing longevity is too often seen as a curse that will create huge populations of senior citizens suffering from dementia or disease.
It is time to view it also as something that opens opportunities for individuals, society, and the worlds of business, education and culture.
It is set to change how citizens live, in potentially exciting ways if we prepare for it, individually and collectively.
Japan is already providing a model. With the world’s highest life expectancy and, at more than 67,000, the highest ratio of centenarians per capita; they had to act. Japan is the only large country to have formally adopted the idea of century-long living as a national project.
It was galvanised in part by the book The 100-Year Life, by two London Business School academics. Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott noted that, while longevity will create more infirm citizens, many will stay healthy much longer happy to work well into their 70s or 80s.
That will need big changes in the world of work but should also be plugged into public financing models. Lives, the authors suggested, will no longer consist of the three stages of education, work and retirement.
Children born today may delay settling into jobs and have an “explorer” phase from 18 to 30, then change tack several times in what could be 50 year-plus careers.
They will need further education or retraining at different stages.
Japan has endorsed that vision as an all-embracing policy. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet office assembled ministers, academics, and business and union leaders into a Council for Designing the 100-Year-Life Society.
Its recommendations included big increases in care workers’ pay, and sharply expanding “recurrent” education, to facilitate higher employment among the elderly.
Business has taken up the challenge. Nursery school operators have expanded into care homes.
Entrepreneurs are opening gyms for senior citizens. Robotics makers are creating devices to help the elderly work longer.
Baby-boomer retirees already live very different lives from their parents.
They are demanding everything from homes, cars and technology tailored to their needs, to cosmetics, dating apps and even adventure holidays.
Companies and governments everywhere should be studying the Japanese approach.
Preparing for century-plus living will require complex, co-ordinated action by businesses and public institutions. Failure to do so will have a high price.
Time to wake up.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org