Managing Longer Lives

People in most countries today are living longer in good health than ever before. But, with life expectancy rising by 2.5 years every decade, societies must adapt their educational systems and employment policies to meet the new needs and desires of people who can look forward to lifespans of a century or more.

ROSTOCK – People in most countries are living longer and longer. Indeed, the rise in life expectancy is seen as a major looming social and economic problem. But is it?

There is, unfortunately, a twofold misunderstanding behind that question. First, the gift of much older age is not one of remote generations. In industrialized countries, the first cohorts of centenarians have already been born. Second, the challenge of longer lives is not a problem, but an opportunity. People are living longer in good health – the most important achievement of modern civilization – and societies today must adapt their educational systems and employment policies to meet the new needs and desires of people who can look forward to lifespans of a century or more.

In the healthiest countries, life expectancy has been rising since 1840 at a remarkably constant rate of about 2.5 years per decade. Life expectancy in most developing countries is increasing even faster as they catch up to the developed-country average. There are tragic exceptions in Africa and the former Soviet Union, but, on the whole, the span of healthy life is lengthening for most of the world’s people.

What this means for individuals can hardly be overvalued. Consider women in Germany, whose life expectancy rose from 45 in 1900 to 82 today – an estimate that excludes the effects of further medical progress. On the reasonable assumption that health conditions continue to improve at the rate prevailing for the last 170 years, most children born in Germany in the year 2000 will still be alive in 2100. The forecast is the same throughout Western Europe, as well as for Canada, the United States, and Japan.

The data show no deceleration of progress, and there is no strong theoretical reason to suspect a looming natural limit to the extension of lifetimes. Maybe there is a limit at 120 or 200; then again, maybe not. For the foreseeable future, however, life expectancy is likely to continue to rise, perhaps at the long-term historical rate of 2.5 years per decade, or faster if biomedical researchers achieve breakthroughs (or somewhat slower if economic growth is weak).

The process of aging is not being slowed down, causing a longer period of frailty at the end of life. Rather, death is being postponed, and with it chronic disease and disability: not only is life expectancy in healthy countries increasing by 2.5 years per decade, but the typical span of healthy life is increasing at the same pace.

Subscribe to PS Digital

Subscribe to PS Digital

Access every new PS commentary, our entire On Point suite of subscriber-exclusive content – including Longer Reads, Insider Interviews, Big Picture/Big Question, and Say More – and the full PS archive.

Subscribe Now

Our bodies do age. Many people at the end of their lives suffer from serious diseases and impairments. The numbers of frail elderly will increase as baby boomers age. But, before they reach their final years, most people can expect better health than their parents or grandparents enjoyed. In advanced economies today, 70-year-olds are about as healthy as 60-year-olds were 50 years ago.

This promising development should not be overlooked when considering changes in the retirement age and other aspects of employment policy. Age 65 nowadays is not the same as age 65 in the past, and it won’t be the same in the future as it is now. In some countries, efforts to increase the retirement age even by just a couple of years – often envisioned as a non-recurring emergency measure – have proven hugely controversial. But, if healthy lifespans are likely to keep increasing, why not continually adjust the retirement age? Why not abolish mandatory retirement and let people decide how long they want to work?

Abandoning mandatory retirement and opening employment opportunities to people who are able to work at older ages would reduce the burden of an increasing number of pensioners and enable a desirable redistribution of work across generations.

Already, many people in their fifties and sixties would like to remain economically productive, perhaps working 20-30 hours per week. At the same time, younger people long for more time for education, leisure, friends, and, crucially, children. Both desires can be fulfilled if societies allow older people to work more years and let everyone work fewer hours.

One option is to move toward an average workweek of 25 hours and an average working life that extends up to age 70 – and to even higher ages if healthy life expectancy continues to rise. Such a reform could be implemented over several decades without slowing economic growth or reducing prosperity.

As people live longer, healthier lives, they will have more opportunities to choose how they want to spend their century – or even longer – on Earth. Far from fearing the dismal burden of too many elderly people, we should embrace the promise of longer, healthier lives. If public policies are appropriate, they will be happier lives as well.