In this episode of the McKinsey Global Institute’s Forward Thinking podcast, co-host Janet Bush talks with Andrew J. Scott. Scott is professor of economics at the London Business School; his work focuses on the economics of longevity. He’s co-founder of the Longevity Forum and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Council on Healthy Aging and Longevity, topics that are very much the focus of the McKinsey Health Institute. His book The 100-Year Life has sold more than a million copies in 15 languages. In this podcast, he covers topics including the following:
- What benefits could greater longevity offer to economies?
- Redefining retirement
- What could be done to help people live healthier for longer
Janet Bush (co-host): Michael, you are a relatively young man, a young father. But are you one of those people who is already organizing your affairs for when you retire?
Michael Chui (co-host): First of all, you’re very kind. But to answer your question, I try to save, but I always feel like I could be doing more.
Janet Bush: Don’t we all. But planning for old age is getting more complicated. Our guest today talks about the established three stages of life—childhood, working life, and retirement—breaking down. We are living longer and if we remain healthy, there are lots of choices. I always thought I would stop work as soon as I could get my pension, but now I am thinking I might work in some shape or form—for money, yes, but also to stay intellectually active. As I say, big choices.
Michael Chui: Indeed. I hope this discussion gives me some ideas!
Janet Bush: Welcome to our podcast, Andrew.
Andrew Scott: Thank you, Janet. Looking forward to talking about longevity.
Janet Bush: Well, tell our listeners a little bit about your background: your childhood, where you were educated, and how you came to be an economist focused on longevity.
Andrew Scott: It seems right, doesn’t it when you talk about longer lives, to start at the beginning? So, yeah, I am a Londoner, or North Londoner, to be more precise. I was born in Enfield, went to school first in Edmonton and then won a scholarship to a school about an hour away. The claim to fame of this school is it produces lots of comedians but I went on to become an economist. I’ll let the listeners add their own punchline to that one.
And I got very excited about economics. I think I’ve always been driven by ideas, but I love ideas that have an impact. I kind of think ideas on their own aren’t enough.
Before I went to university, I had to work for a while. And rather than working in the cottage cheese factory or the pub, I wrote off and got a job in the Treasury, which was fantastic. It was the time when monetary policy was being taken seriously in terms of monetarism. And that was a fantastic time to see how theory, data, and policy could come together, a brilliant example of ideas and impact so that got me interested in macro.
I then went to study at Oxford, PPE, or politics, philosophy, and economics. Then, at LSE [London School of Economics], I did a master’s and learnt to do maths and economics at the same time. I then won a Prize Fellowship at All Souls in Oxford to pursue my PhD and that gave me the freedom to think more broadly.
But as a result of that Treasury experience I was always really interested in the traditional stuff you think macroeconomists are about. So most of my career I spent working on monetary and fiscal policy, and booms and recessions. And then around 50, I changed, and I think there’s a bunch of reasons for that.
One was—Janet, you used to work as an economic journalist—there’s only so many years you can talk about whether interest rates are going up or going down. After a while it gets just a little bit routine. I also think, you know, we’ll talk later about the purpose of longer lives, but you discover, actually, who you are as well.
And I realized, “Well, I’m big picture, I’m about big multidisciplinary topics, rather than more specific things like central banking and the monetary transmission mechanism.” And then, my parents had passed, my children were behaving very differently from me, and it makes you a little bit philosophical and I just started thinking about longevity.
Meanwhile at the school, the business school, I would give a lecture on an aging society. In retrospect it was a very standard story, “The Aging Society.” I’ve been told it since I was an undergraduate, “We’ve got a problem, there’s more old people, old people get sick, they need a pension, they’re a burden, they’re a problem, and that’s bad for the economy.” And there was a slide halfway in that presentation that just said, “On average, we’re living longer, and we’re healthier for longer.”
I just sort of stopped at that point. I thought, “Well, how did we turn that into just a resolutely bad news story? That sounds positive.” And that just got me thinking about longevity and how we adapt to longer lives.
That led to me writing The 100-Year Life with my colleague Lynda Gratton, from our OB [organizational behavior] department here. And it was a book thinking about implications for careers, and how you structure your life. And it became this huge global best-seller, which is great. But it got me out and about meeting all sorts of different people.
And I thought, “All right, this is my topic now, and this is where I will focus my hard-core research agenda.” For me, this topic is up there with AI [artificial intelligence], up there with climate change and the changing global political situation as one of the major trends that we have to face.
What I find extraordinary though about this topic is that it’s so frequently misrepresented. It’s always about the burden of being old rather than how do we adapt to longer lives. And I think for me, this is a huge topic. It’s multidisciplinary, it’s something that most people have got wrong and we need to act on now. And that’s why I got into this extraordinarily interesting topic.
Janet Bush: Let’s focus in on that figure, 100 years. Tell our listeners, if they don’t know your book and your thesis and your thoughts, what is that hundred years about?
Andrew Scott: I wanted to write about longevity in general, but the idea of a 100-year life certainly draws people’s attention. So there’s been spectacular increases in life expectancy. And when I first started writing about this, I found demographers very unenthusiastic about the concept of life expectancy.
And now I tend to agree with them for a whole bunch of reasons. This is a complicated topic, and the chances of any one of us actually living exactly as long as life expectancy are pretty small. In fact, most people, by the way, live longer than average life expectancy, so there’s even a problem there.
But there have been these spectacular improvements in life expectancy, and the best way of documenting that is a concept called best-practice life expectancy that Jim Vaupel and coauthors came up with. Best practice life expectancy is the country at any point in time which has the highest life expectancy at birth. Currently it’s Japan, 87.
What Oeppen and Vaupel show is over the last 100, 150 years, in every decade, on average, life expectancy has increased by two or three years. Quite remarkable. And it’s almost linear. Despite all the things that are happening, world wars, pandemics, over time, there’s this two-, three-year increase every ten years.
Now, of course, if you project that forward, unchanged, you get extraordinary life expectancies. That is how you can reach the conclusion that in the high-income countries, the vast majority of children born today will live to be over a hundred.
Lots of debate here. Can we expect those trends of two or three years every ten years to increase? I think probably not. I think we’re probably going to see something like one year every decade. But even if you use one year in every decade as the trend you reach the conclusion that you have very high probabilities of living to your 90s or 100.
Looking at UK government data—and the UK is by no means good at life expectancy compared to many other countries—a newborn female in the UK has a life expectancy of 90, and that’s assuming a slowing down of future trends; they have a one-in-four chance of making it to 99, and a one-in-five chance of making it to 100. So there’s a realistic probability now of living to 100. And the expectation, in terms of the median person, is you’ll reach into your early 90s. And that’s extraordinary.
Janet Bush: It is extraordinary. And I will come back to this question. It’s like, “Do we actually want to live that long?” And then we get into the “health” and “living healthily” issue. But I just want to go back to this twist that you’ve given—why is longevity, why is aging, always negative? I’ve seen a lot of figures, trillions, which is the dividend from this rising longevity. And I’d love to know which figure that you would put on it.
Andrew Scott: There’s a lot of people who are trying to make this a positive topic. And I think that’s a good thing, we shouldn’t be overly and solely negative—longer lives are better than the alternatives. This is one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century. There’s fewer children snatched away in infant life, fewer parents snatched away in midlife, more grandparents meeting their grandchildren. I think this has the foundations of being a good thing.
But we’re mostly negative, and I think that’s because we underestimate the capacity of older people in our later years. And we do so in lots of ways which is just ageism. And it’s remarkable when you tell people, “Actually, older people tend to be happier than people in their 40s and 50s,” for instance. They are amazed.
But for me, numbers are key, and I want to quantify things. And for me as an economist, there’s three ways you can try and quantify the advantages of healthier longevity. One—which everyone’s very keen on, and I’m not—is, “How much money would we save if we’re not spending money on dementia, and hip replacements, and things of that form? You know, if you could be healthier for longer, we wouldn’t have all those problems."
I find that the wrong way of looking at the problem. Because if we can come up with a cure for dementia that costs twice as much as what we currently spend on looking after dementia patients, I’m all in. I mean, you know, we’ll find the money. I think that’s a wrong way to look at health savings. I think actually health expenditure will carry on rising, health becomes ever more important, and the longer we live, the more important health becomes to us. So let’s rule that one out.
Another one is, “What’s the boost to GDP?” And I’m working on that! Actually, we haven’t got a good model of how working for longer, being healthier for longer, educating longer would affect the economy. But it’s substantial. Later on we’ll talk about if you can get more people age 50 to 65 working, you’re talking about four or five percentage points of GDP every year. But I still think that’s not the right way of looking at it.
The way I’ve done it so far is to say, “Well, we just value health, and we value life. Let’s use economic tools that place a value on health to come up with how much we should appreciate living longer, but also living longer in better health.” And it’s staggering numbers.
I’ve done some work with David Sinclair at Harvard and Martin Ellison from Oxford that says if you could slow down how you age biologically such that you had one more year of life expectancy, and all the diseases that you get with old age come later because you’ve slowed down your biological aging clock, it’s worth between $37 trillion and $50 trillion for the United States alone.
Now, that’s impressive in value terms. But that’s the welfare gains expressed in present value terms. If you look at it more closely, basically it works out at about 3 or 4 percent of GDP for one year of life expectancy every year. I’ll come back to that headline number, $37 trillion to $50 trillion, and just come back to COVID. During COVID we took steps to shutter the economy that lowered GDP by three or four percentage points, and saved about one year of life expectancy. So the valuation in our paper seems about right.
We value life, we value health. It is the most valuable thing. And so those numbers we come up with, they sound huge. Because health is the most valuable thing to us. As we’re living longer, the biggest health challenge is age-related diseases. And if we can do something about it, the gains are enormous because there’s loads of older people.
I think the point to stress here is that we’ve never had this situation before. We’ve never had the chance of the young becoming old be so high, such that now our biggest health problem is age-related diseases. And we’ve never had so many old people. And put those two together and we have a new priority for society, which is to tackle how we age and to age better.
Janet Bush: Before we go on to the broader picture, you mentioned GDP. How well does GDP measure any of this stuff that you’re talking about?
Andrew Scott: It’s a great question. And I think the first thing is, because health is valuable to us, GDP may not fully capture that. And COVID is the greatest example there, where we decided to lower GDP because it was better for our health.
It’s clear that, in some ways, GDP doesn’t capture everything. We know that. And certainly I think the more we have an aging society, the more we have older people who are not working, the more crucial it is to have healthy life expectancy as a measure of how well the welfare of a country is.
It’s interesting, if you look at healthy life expectancy, how badly the UK and US do, for instance, compared to many other high-income countries. But it’s going to be utterly key. Because if we are all, or the majority of us, now living these longer lives, that healthy life expectancy is key. Because if you talk to people, “How do you feel about getting old?", they say, “As long as I’m healthy, as long as I’ve got purpose and engagement,” and that healthy life-expectancy number is now key. So, yes, GDP is not going to capture that.
But I also think that the challenge we’ve got at the moment is there are three dimensions of longer lives. And we’ve got one already. We do already have longer lives. We’ve got to make sure our health catches up with those longer lives. And we’ve got to make sure our productive potential extends, because then we can finance those longer lives.
Those are those three key dimensions: living longer, in better health, and more productive for longer. And the trouble with the aging-society story is it assumes you can’t change how people age health-wise, and you can’t make people more productive. And so it only focuses upon changes in the age structure of the population. Whereas, for me, if we’re living these longer lives, we have to change how we age.
I’m 58, so put that on the table when we’re talking about longevity. And if our life expectancy is 92, then I’m going to behave very differently than if my life expectancy is 70. And it’s that that we’ve got to try and adapt to. Because for the first time ever in human history, the young, the middle-aged can expect to become the very old. So if we do age better, I think we’re seeing a healthy life expectancy, but that will, I think, also pay for itself in terms of GDP.
Janet Bush: It’s interesting that—I mean, personally, I’ve just turned 63. If I share my parents’ history, my father died suddenly at age 60, my mother died well into her 90s after three years of being bedridden with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Neither of which were ideal.
Andrew Scott: No.
Janet Bush: And that shapes your attitudes. My attitude is, partly, “I can’t wait to retire so that I can go traveling,” But I’ll have to freelance, or something, to finance lovely wildlife photography holidays. So you start thinking, “I want to stop.” And then you start thinking, “But I won’t be able to afford it.” And then you start thinking, “But will I be bored?” So are attitudes changing among people? Not seeing just that retirement age, that official retirement age when you can get your pension. Are people changing their attitudes, do you think?
Andrew Scott: Definitely. I think we’ve already seen a really, really big shift around retirement. I’m always very muddled about how much time to spend talking about retirement. For two reasons.
The first is that the notion that there is a single date where everyone comes to a hard stop of work is becoming less and less apparent. And, in fact, if you look at the employment data by age, there’s no big jump-down at the state pension age. And there’s two reasons there. The first is a lot of people leave work before, from 50 onwards. And actually, I think that’s a really big challenge for a longevity society. We’re not giving people health, skills, tackling ageism, and flexible work that is needed to keep people working from 50 to state pension age. So just raising the state pension age does nothing to keep people healthy and employable. It just means that they’ve got to carry on working without helping them do so.
And then the second thing you’re seeing is people doing things very differently after the state pension age. Many of them still carrying on working. We have this word now called “unretirement,” where lots of people retire and then unretire.
For me, I think what you saw in the 20th century is the creation of a three-stage life. We saw the creation of a world of education, a career structure, and then retirement. We invented teenagers in the 20th century. My dad was never actually a teenager. You see, he was born in 1925, and he was working at 14. And he was never a “teenager” in the cultural sense. He went from being a child to being an adult with responsibilities.
And then we also invented pensioners. My great-grandparents never had experience as a pensioner. They worked until they died. And as life expectancy has increased, what’s happened is that we’ve taken more and more of those years of extra life after the retirement age, so we’ve taken a lot of leisure after the retirement date.
I think what we’re going to see, as lives get longer now, is we’ll take more leisure this side of retirement. Which may mean we work for longer, we may be doing part-time work at the end, rather than full-time work. It depends on people’s circumstances and needs. But also, you’ll see people take some breaks beforehand. And you’re seeing that.
I see people start work not at 21 anymore, which seems to me a kind of smart thing to do, in a way. You’re seeing people 45, 50 change their jobs, or interrupt their employment. Maybe for caring, and maybe they lost their job, or it may be voluntary. So I think you’re beginning, already, to see the emergence of a new, flexible career path.
Janet Bush: It’s interesting, because the McKinsey Health Institute has done this Healthy Aging survey. And it’s very, very clear from the results that older people don’t want to just shut up shop. I mean, the factors of individual health that were of above-average importance were “having a purpose,” “learning something new,” and “having a balanced stress level.” So things are already changing, I think. Which brings me to: Is ageism still real? And how much is it holding back something that’s organically changing?
Andrew Scott: Going back to the sort of “engagement.” I use the word “productive aging” because I’m an economist. But by “productive aging” I don’t simply mean working for a salary. If we are living these longer lives, we’ve got to create a structure and a framework, both as individuals, but also as a society, that helps us maintain a sense of purpose and a sense of engagement. And we don’t.
I’ve been reading Simone de Beauvoir’s book, Old Age. It’s a brilliant book, and she’s so angry. And she says, “As a society, we’re just not really providing opportunities. She says, “If all we’re doing is saying, ’Oh, we’ll take care of it with a pension and a housing policy,’ we’re missing the point."
I think I’ll come back to this root cause of underestimating the capacity of older people and their later years. Which, of course, is ageism. But by doing that, by underestimating our own future years we also don’t invest enough in our own future old age because we underestimate our capacity.
So there definitely is ageism. But I’ve also got to say that some things are changing. If I look at the labor market in the ten years before COVID, amongst the G-7, 80 percent of employment growth came from workers aged over 50. In the European Union, it was 130 percent.
Now, if you think about what’s happening in the rich countries, there’s hardly any productivity growth, so all GDP growth is coming from employment, and all employment’s coming from older people. So there’s something already changing that we’re not aware of. I’d like to think that’s a change away from ageist prejudices. Or it could just be that, actually, people are changing how they age. We just don’t notice it, and so these things happen.
The next two candidates for the US presidency are both likely to be old. And I’m sure there are going to be a lot of discussions, as there already is, about their age. But the very fact that an 80-year-old and a 77-year-old are likely to be competing for the next election suggests that ageism is much more complicated than the simple prejudice of “you’re old, you can’t do some things.” So, yeah, I think there is change happening, but there’s a lot more that needs to occur.
Janet Bush: As an economist, and as somebody interested in economics, it just fascinates me to know whether economic metrics are capturing any of this change.
Andrew Scott: I think economics is a wonderful intellectual topic, it’s muscular and powerful. But, my goodness, we don’t, I think, look at this concept of aging very well. And what’s so interesting is that as a macroeconomist, my whole language is about real variables and nominal variables but not when it comes to thinking about aging.
So when it comes to age, 65-plus, that’s “old.” But that is so limiting and misleading because the really striking thing about aging is that people age very diversely. Some of that’s about health shocks, and some of it is about just compounding of lifetime opportunities.
So, really, age is not a terribly good indicator of someone’s needs, certainly not if you lump everyone together who is 65-plus. And, of course, that’s because we focus on chronological measures of age. And it’s always important in this area to focus on two additional measures of age.
One, I think, is a really powerful economic channel. It’s “perspective,” or “thanatological age.” Which is, “How many more years can you expect to live?” So not, “How many years have you lived?” but “How many years can you expect still to live?” And because of growing life expectancy, every 58-year-old has now got more years ahead of them than the past ones. Which means you need to invest in your future. And we can expect 58-year-olds to behave differently.
And then the other concept is “biological age.” Which is getting an increasing amount of scientific attention and showing real progress in terms of understanding why we age. Which is to understand that, you know, whereas before we have a disease model, where, you know, you get cholera, or you get typhoid. Now we’re understanding that, actually, because we’re living these long lives, most of the diseases we get have a common cause, which is age. And they’re age related. The risk of getting cancer, dementia, diabetes, they all rise strongly with age.
So what is your biological age is a really important question. And we know, in common parlance, “you look good for your age,” et cetera, we know there are things we can do to age better. Aging is malleable. And there has to be that focus on biological age and thanatological age. But we miss it in economics, and I think that’s a really big challenge for policy makers. Because, you know, all the debate gets down to, “Should we increase the state pension age?” Which, really, just is not a very nuanced policy. It’s far too blunt and controversial an approach and misses out on the opportunities that longer lives bring.
Janet Bush: Yes, it does seem very punitive. My state pension kicks in at 67, and I must say when that was raised, I was thinking, “Do you want me to just work until I die?” But, of course, I could live for another 20 or 30 years. Who knows?
Andrew Scott: And if you’re a 20-year-old Danish male, I think 72 is your current scheduled state pension age.
Janet Bush: So, clearly, there’s the scourge of old-age-related illnesses, dementia being one of them, with hospitals full of patients. So prevention is clearly important, and you talk a lot about it. But how much of it is actually happening?
Andrew Scott: Very little, I think. If you look at the actual budget breakdown, it tends to be that 1 percent is allocated to preventative health. I think that’s a bit of an underestimate because, you know, for things like cancer screening, et cetera, that would also count as preventative. But it’s still a small minority and a lot less than it needs to be.
This is the great pivot that needs to happen, and it’s going to be hard. Because we have health systems that are based not really around health, they’re based around disease, they’re based around hospitals, and the notion of intervening when people are young with a disease and aiming to keep them alive. And that’s not a model that works very well with age-related diseases. We have to prevent people getting age-related diseases.
There’s a number of issues of age-related diseases. One is that they’re chronic, not acute. So they’re long-lasting, so you can’t cure them. But also, once you have one, you tend to then get another one. So you get these multi-morbidities, which leads to all sorts of challenges.
And moving away from a really successful health system, that’s done a great job of getting us to live these long lives, to something different which gets us to age differently and keep us healthy is going to be hard. And some of that is just going to be institutional resistance. You know, if you’ve got the people who succeed at the top of the tree because they’ve been doing cancer surgeries for all their career, it’s going to be hard to say, “Well, I need to take money away from you and give it to someone else."
I think there’s going to be a lot of experimentation about what works. But there are a number of things that we can do. Public health clearly has to be at the forefront. We know it’s the first line of defense. Public health did a great job in reducing smoking. And I think they need to do a lot more in the future around diet, exercise, obesity, and diabetes, all of which are real threats to our future health and how we age.
That’s going to be a really controversial one because it’s going to be about changing people’s behavior, it’s going to be about tackling commercial interests. But we did it with smoking. We’re going to have to do it again in these areas.
I think there’s some really interesting work happening in the UK, actually, around our digital health. Because we know that preventative screening is really expensive. To screen everyone for everything is going to be impossibly expensive. So if you can get a genetic profile of people, and find out what they’re most susceptible to, then you could focus the screening on those particular conditions. And I think that’s really going to be a big future area where you’re going to get some of the advantages of AI and big data, with screening to help people before they get a disease.
Then I think there’s a whole bunch of other things. I think, for instance, issues around menopause are going to be really important. It’s a critical impact on female health and how people will age later in life. So I think focusing on that will be a really big thing.
And then I think there’s some interesting developments happening around drugs and science, where I don’t think we’re going to come up with a pill that will cure aging, but it’s clear that we are understanding the aging process as a biological process, or processes. I think over time this geoscience will lead to new products and treatments that help us age better.
I think there’s a lot of scope for treatments that could, well, for instance, really help with things like arthritis and, as we’re seeing even recently, with dementia. So I think there’s scope to be optimistic on some of these measures.
Janet Bush: It strikes me that, going back to public health campaigns to stop us smoking, lose weight, et cetera, et cetera, sometimes come across as, you know, the “nanny state,” and telling us what to do. And I think it has to come from people.
I was a smoker for a long time, and in the end, it wasn’t nagging from my daughter, it was me who gave up. And I think that’s where people, knowing that they might live quite a lot longer than they thought, is really key. Because that gives people the motivation to stay healthy.
Andrew Scott: I completely agree with you. I’ve just finished my next book, and I have this thing called “the evergreen imperative” in it and its made up of three very simple statements. The first is, “The data says you’re very likely now to live into your 90s."
The second is, “You worry about getting into your 90s: You worry about getting ill, running out of money, not having relationships, not having a sense of purpose.” So then that leads to the inevitable conclusion of, what do you do now to make sure that those bad outcomes are minimized?
That’s the key. With more future, we have to invest more in it and take different decisions. Now, that does require a sense of agency. Now, public health can support by making those decisions easier. I mean, I struggle with weight and drinking and making the right choices so anything that supports me in making better decisions is welcome. And, you know, you’ve got to have a good life. You mustn’t just deny yourself everything, or, as the old joke goes, “It’s not just a long life, it just seems like a long life."
But, we do have to have a sense of agency. We have to invest more in our future ourselves. I think that’s also going to be another big part of the preventative health. You know, when your phone gives you so much information about your health and how it changes, I think that’s going to be a really important part. And once that becomes more of a social norm, you’ll start to see those collective changes in behavior.
Janet Bush: So, let’s get back to the financial side of aging. I mean, obviously it’s one of the big legs. I mean our Health Institute survey found that the people who are facing financial hardship, who are not well off are much less likely to do some of the things associated with fending off dementia, like good sleep, balanced diet. So there’s a health cost to financial insecurity. So how can we tackle that?
Andrew Scott: Let me, as a macroeconomist, say one thing I’m very keen on. I’m very keen we don’t just increase the state pension age in relation to life expectancy. I think we need to condition the state pension age on a healthy life expectancy. And that would change things quite dramatically.
Because it then gives the ministries of finance an incentive to invest in healthy life expectancy. Because they would actually end up getting some return in terms of higher GDP and tax receipts, because they’re going to delay paying pensions. It also would help people live longer, healthy lives so they can work for longer.
But I think we’ve just really got to get incentives into the system to make sure that we age more healthily. And right at the moment, that’s not the case. Even with drug discovery right now, there’s still a great focus on drugs that give a little bit of life at the end of life rather than better health earlier in life. So there’s a whole bunch of incentives that we mentioned earlier about healthy life expectancy rather than GDP.
Then the other thing you’re focusing on here is inequality. I said earlier that one of the remarkable things about aging is the diversity in how we age. And I think this is one of the really interesting areas of focusing on longevity. Because some of the time, it’s about saying, “Hey, aging is a really important topic."
But the other part of the time you say, “Well, actually, it’s not really age itself that’s the issue. Some people are going to age really well. They’ve got good health, they’ve got a good education, they’ve got good financial resources. They don’t need a free bus pass at 60, they’re doing absolutely brilliantly.” But there’s others who haven’t had those advantages throughout their life.
And one of the challenges I think we’ve got is that we think of everyone over 65 as the same, so they should have a common policy. But we don’t think of that at less than 65. And so when you think about health policy, when you think about public health, and you think about labor markets, less than 65, we have a nuanced approach. At older ages we tend to be, “Oh, it’s everyone the same.” And I think we’ve just got to move away from that. I think there’s some real issues here.
Because although we are ageist, well, part of that ageism is lumping everyone together. And we’ve got to say, “Well, actually, age isn’t really the most important variable when we look at people’s decisions, needs, and circumstances.” And I think that’s the other great thing we’re going to discover as more and more people enter 65 plus—just how diverse they are.
Janet Bush: I’m in my 60s. And I work with some extraordinarily bright young people at McKinsey, but I feel that I’m really useful. I mean, I have amazing amounts of experience, and they tap into that all the time, which is great. But I’ve read that you have talked about intergenerational workforces. And we definitely have that, but just tell us a bit more about that. What’s so great about it?
Andrew Scott: I was trying really hard not to be either too positive or too negative about anything to do with aging. It’s easy to slip into stereotypes and in reality there’s pluses and minuses. However, what’s nice about the question you just asked is that, if you think about the demographic changes happening in society as a whole, we used to have these demographic pyramids. Lots of young people, not many old people.
When we talk about an aging society, actually what’s happening in most countries, not everywhere, is that we’re going to see just a lot more age equality. Every age band’s going to have roughly the same number of people in it. So I think let’s couch it in terms of diversity rather than a gerontocracy, or whatever starts to happen.
There’s definitely changes that have to occur when people live for longer, in terms of politics and corporate structures, when people hang around for longer. But you do get this scope for age diversity. And what we know is that more diverse teams are more innovative.
Of course, you’ve got to find ways of exploiting that age diversity. You can’t just assume it happens. So if you have very hierarchical institutions based on tenure, you’re probably going to have a problem. As, Max Planck says, “Science advances one funeral at a time."
And that’ll be a problem if you’ve got those hierarchies where the old generation stays in power and dominate. But if you can find ways of tapping into that intergenerational diversity, you get great outcomes. There was a lovely study of academics that found that the most innovative ideas do come from people earlier on in their career. But the most innovative ideas, the most successful ones, come when you take a young researcher with a more experienced researcher and bring them together.
Because there’s never any one point in time where your brain is best at everything. And that’s what happens as you get older—your advantages and disadvantage shift and change. So if there’s a team, and you can tap into that, you’re going to get better outcomes. And we know that. We know that coding skill was maybe best done by the very young because they’re just aware of what’s happened and spent more time. But there’s other issues that older workers can contribute to and help.
The other thing in this topic is there’s surprisingly little evidence that productivity is less amongst older workers. It depends on the industry, it depends on the sector. But there’s this overwhelming concept that older people are less productive and less innovative, but it’s really not easily backed out amongst the data.
Janet Bush: You’ve read my mind. Because I was going to ask you about productivity, which is MGI’s longest-running topic. Do you think that this more flexible view of our lifespan, and not stopping work at 67, and breaking down that third-age sort of structure that’s been imposed, do you think that that will actually raise productivity?
Andrew Scott: It could. I hate to be so vague on that one. For me, one of the issues is, with a longer life we do need to work for longer if we want to preserve a standard of living. We just have to earn more. That doesn’t mean we have to be more productive at each point in our lifetime so it could be that our average productivity over a lifetime is less.
Working for longer will boost GDP, relative to what would happen otherwise, but I don’t necessarily mean you have to be at your most productive later on. But I do think creating more flexible forms of work will support people working for longer. And that’s already happening.
I did some work with Daron Acemoglu at MIT and Nicolaj Mühlbach then at MIT. And we found in the US that over the last 30 years, three-quarters of jobs have become more age-friendly, in the sense that you had more flexibility over scheduling, less physical work, less stress, more autonomy. And, actually, this had benefited not just older workers, but lots and lots of other workers as well because workers of all ages prefer these characteristics.
But jobs have become more age-flexible, and I think that will help us maintain productivity for longer, which will support higher productivity in the economy and higher total lifetime productivity, even if possibly our lifetime average may go down.
Janet Bush: There’s a shift towards knowledge jobs and the rest of it. And I can see that somebody with my skill set, for example, has more flexibility than somebody who was, say, a manual worker. AI is going to change the whole balance of everything. Plug AI into your work, and what do you see?
Andrew Scott: There’s huge uncertainties about AI and lots of different effects. My take on AI is that it can be helpful for longer careers, to the extent to which there will be jobs. AI and robotics can help take away a lot of the physical work, and some of the remembering of things. And already we’re seeing robots supporting older workers in manufacturing because they can do the more physical things.
Also I think we will start to see, as machines get better at being machines, humans have to get better at being more human. That’s a very simple way of putting it. And humans actually aren’t very good at spreadsheet calculations—machines are better at that. So human empathy, EQ, et cetera, will all become more important for employment. And there’s some evidence that suggests that older people have got more of those—empathy, less egotistical than younger workers.
So in some sense, I think, we’re going to see technology actually having an interesting shift. And to the extent it’s about emotional intelligence, rather than just academic intelligence, that may also be helpful from an equality perspective. I mean, I’ve been in enough faculty meetings to know that IQ and EQ aren’t always necessarily the same thing.
And so I think that could be a positive. And there will certainly be positives, I think, around healthcare. Clearly, though, that’s about assuming that there are jobs. But I think you’ve tapped into something about inequality, which I think is a really big challenge.
And going back to the age-friendly jobs research that I did, what we found was in particular male non-college-educated workers were losing out because they tended to be in construction, manufacturing, jobs that were not very age-friendly—hadn’t become much more age-friendly. And so if they’re going to carry on working for longer, they’re going to have to get out of those sectors. And that’s a tough transition.
We’ve got to think about how we support transitions to help people into different roles. And obviously the more skills you’ve got, the more education and qualifications you’ve got, the more money you’ve got, the more health you’ve got, the more options you’ve got, the easier that is.
We’re back again to this nuanced labor market policy of “who do we focus our attention on in helping?” And this also comes back to things like healthy life expectancy. Because if you have been doing the hard, physical manual job, your healthy life expectancy—your life expectancy is not the same as a university professor. So we really have to allow for that heterogeneity.
Janet Bush: So it’s incredibly uncertain what’s going to happen to us, how long we’re going to live. How do you plan financially for that?
Andrew Scott: I think it’s going to be one of the really big issues. Because we can’t know for sure how long we’re going to live. For two reasons. One is, there’s an average, but people die many years after that and below it. And the second is that we may see further increases in life expectancy. So you’ve got huge uncertainty to deal with from a financial planning perspective.
The big shift that’s happened is, in the 20th century, there was a high risk of dying in middle age. So we developed life insurance. Which was to say your family would be secure if you died early. Now the big worry is you outlive your health, your wealth, and your relationships. So we kind of need “living insurance”. And I think we’re going to see a huge financial sector grow, just as we saw with life insurance, trying to help you deal with that risk.
It’s more than that, too. Because you got to start thinking, “Well, okay, how do I deal with the risk of, you know, I might need to work till I’m 70, but I lose my job at 50? I lose my health at 60?” There’s lots and lots of imponderables here.
For me, there’s two ways to solve that. One is to think about your investment across many assets, and not just your money. Because the way you really solve financial risks of living longer is being able to work for longer. And then that means you’re going to be at a job that you can work for longer in, that you want to work for longer in, and is manageable. How do you construct your career to make sure you’ve got that as an option?
Then it’s investing in your health and your relationships so that you can always find something else to do. So it’s about keeping options open, and investing in a broader range of assets. Because there is no way we can answer the questions. “How long do you need to work for?” “How long will you live for?” And “How long will you be in good health?” These are some of these really big new imponderables that longer lives give us that we need to find solutions for.
Janet Bush: And now that the artificial three ages are breaking down, everything to play for, and even more uncertainty in the way we regard these things.
Andrew Scott: And, of course, we’ll come up with financial products, and we’ll find career paths. But there’s a lot of social innovation that needs to happen. I mentioned earlier about teenagers and pensioners. They didn’t come fully formed. It took a while to work out, “What do we do with these new ages? and we saw whole new industries develop around it. And I think we’re still at that early stage, so it’ll take a while. But I think you can see that change already happening.
Janet Bush: Well, absolutely fascinating. We’ve talked a long while, and we like to finish our podcasts with just a couple of quick-fire questions. So if you’re up for that?
Andrew Scott: Fire away, yeah.
Janet Bush: If you hadn’t been an economist, what would you have liked to have been? Or would like to be now?
Andrew Scott: Well, it’s a multistage life, so I’ve still got many careers ahead of me. I think I won’t be ever playing professional football. I always liked film, so I think I’d love to have done something like film directing. I mean, that’d be fascinating.
Janet Bush: And as you get older, what would you like to spend more time doing?
Andrew Scott: Laura Carstensen from Stanford has some great research on why older people are happier. And she basically says they’re better at avoiding the things that cause them grief and focusing on the things that give them pleasure and happiness.
I’m all over that. I’m still trying to find what they are, but that’s basically what it is. Although one of the things I am doing is trying to keep fit and healthy. So I do a lot more exercise, which I enjoy, most of the time.
Janet Bush: Yeah. It’s a burden, but it’s a blessing. What one piece of advice would you give to listeners of our podcast?
Andrew Scott: Whenever I talk about longevity, I’m always asked about advice. You know, to eat bright-colored vegetables, all that sort of stuff comes in. I think it’s really very simple, which is that if you look at these demographic trends, we’ve all got more time ahead of us than past generations.
So we need to age differently. We need to do things differently from the past. And because you have got more future, you need to invest more in your future self. What does your future self want? It’s very hard to know, isn’t it? But you do know that it’s going to like to have health, good relationships, options, and money.
Just make a friend of your future self and think about how you can give your future self some of those things. But the other thing I think is important about longevity is that [since] we’re aging differently it is not just about giving your future self something. It goes in both ways: Your future self can give you something today. And if we have got more time, you can use some of that time now.
Janet Bush: On that very positive note, thank you very much, Andrew, it’s been fascinating.
Andrew Scott: Thank you, Janet, enjoyed it.