McKinsey Health Institute

The ‘evergreen economy’: Harnessing the power of healthy longevity

The majority of people can now expect to grow older. By 2050, 1.6 billion people will be over the age of 65. The challenge—and opportunity—that comes with increased life expectancy is ensuring that those extra years are as healthy and productive as possible. It’s an attainable goal, asserts British economist Andrew J. Scott, if the global focus shifts from the notion of an aging society to that of a longevity society, anchored in prevention, innovation, and investment.

Scott is a professor of economics at London Business School, cofounder of the Longevity Forum, and coauthor of The 100-Year Life, which has sold more than a million copies. His latest book, The Longevity Imperative: How to Build a Healthier and More Productive Society to Support Our Longer Lives (Basic Books, April 2024), outlines what needs to happen across the public, private, and social sectors to stimulate what he calls an “evergreen economy.”

As part of the McKinsey Health Institute’s (MHI’s) Conversations on Health series, Scott recently sat down with Ellen Feehan, a McKinsey partner and coleader of MHI’s healthy longevity team, to discuss the meaning of healthy longevity and why it should be top of mind—regardless of age, geography, and industry.

The following is an edited version of their conversation.

Ellen Feehan: In your view, what is healthy longevity?

Andrew Scott: Something remarkable has happened. Global life expectancy is now over 70. In high-income countries, 50 percent of children are expected to live to their late 80s or early 90s. We’re living longer, but we’re not healthier for longer. We’ve also got to make sure we’re productive and engaged for longer. And that’s what I see as healthy longevity—how can we respond to this extra length of life that we’ve achieved to make sure that we’re not just living longer—but healthier, engaged, and productive for longer.

Ellen Feehan: Why healthy longevity and not healthy aging?

Andrew Scott: I don’t want to get too purist, [but] in general, I’ve got a problem with the word “aging.” I think we’ve medicalized old age; we see it only as a form of decline. And yes, it is of course about healthy aging, but if we’re going to think about longevity, we need to recognize that it’s also about the extra time we’ve got ahead of us. Whether you’re 20, 50, 70, or 80, you’ve got more time ahead of you than previous generations. So I think that focus on longevity, on that time you’ve got at whatever age you’ve got, is really important. What is healthy aging? I think people see that as something that happens—“Oh, I’ll do that later.” You can improve how you age at any time, but the earlier you start, the better.

Ellen Feehan: By 2050, 1.6 billion people will be over the age of 65. What is the opportunity in this demographic shift?

Andrew Scott: I’m glad you used the word “opportunity” because normally an aging society is seen as a bad thing—it’s like, “Oh God, we’ve got an aging society.” But it’s definitely an opportunity. And I think there are two ways of spinning that. One, you often hear people say, “Well, there’s an opportunity in all the things older people need.” But I think actually there’s a more profound change in play. I call it the evergreen society or the evergreen economy. We’re living longer, but we need to be healthier longer. We need to be engaged for longer. And what are the things you can do for me to help me do that.

It's true that if I get ill in later life and I get dementia, I will spend money to have someone care for me, but I’ll spend a fortune to avoid getting dementia. And that’s what I mean by the evergreen economy. What are the things I can do at 30, 40, 50, 60 to help me keep my health, keep my purpose, keep my sense of engagement. And that’s a huge opportunity—it’s the leisure industry, it’s the food and beverage industry, it’s about education and financial services, as well as, of course, health products. It’s an enormous market opportunity because, around the world, everyone is living longer and can expect to have more time ahead of them. So how they age is incredibly important.

Ellen Feehan: What role do employers and organizations have to play here?

Andrew Scott: I think they’ve got a twofold role. One is of course in the way they look after their employees, and the other is the products they produce. A lot of change needs to happen now; we’ve got to adapt to these longer lives. Lots of new products. Lots of new services. And most firms, when I talk to them, think of the over 65 as a single market focused invariably on issues such as care and decline, effectively underestimating the capacity of older people. That’s a belief hardwired into the concept of an aging society—that is, to fundamentally misunderstand an enormous potential market with an ever-growing number of people who tend to have more money than younger people. So I think there’s a huge product opportunity because we’re going into a deep period of social change, and firms are the distribution arm of social change.

For employers, they’re going to find that more and more of their workforce is older. In the last ten years, in [high-income] countries, the majority of employment growth is from workers over 50. Firms tend to be very focused on younger workers: “How do I attract them?” But if you’re not careful, you’re going to lose a lot of talent that is older and experienced. And age-diverse teams tend to make a firm work better. I think firms are often blind to the experience and knowledge that older workers have. It’s really important to think about how you [can] retain that human capital and find ways of doing so through more age-friendly jobs, while also ensuring that the firm’s workforce can exploit the benefits of intergenerational diversity.

Ellen Feehan: In 2023, MHI conducted a global survey of 21,000 older adults about their perception of age. Respondents largely agreed on the importance of having purpose and meaningful engagement with society as they grow older. We often refer to the adage, “Age is just a number.” What does that phrase mean to you?

Andrew Scott: I used to really love that expression, but the more I think about it, the more I get a bit confused because the question is, “Which number?” And is it useful? We’re very focused on chronological age. We’re very focused on how many candles there are on the birthday cake.

And that’s the basis of ageism—the idea that your chronological age pins down your behaviors. But I think there are two other really important definitions of age. One is called “prospective age”: the number of years you can expect to live. At 58, I should be behaving differently from my father and my grandfather at 58 because I’ve got more years ahead of me. And the other really important way of thinking about age is your biological age—you know, we often say, “You look good for your age,” which is an informal recognition of the concept of biological age.

If we’re going to age well, we really need to make sure that our biological age stays as young as possible, for longer. [As for] chronological age, I’m not sure it’s useful. It’s often a very misleading concept. We need to think about aging very differently. The ultimate point here is that we’ve got to change how we age so we don’t outlive our health, our wealth, our finances, our skills, our relationships. If we’re going to change how we age, then at whatever your age, you should be behaving differently from past generations.

Ellen Feehan: Can you speak to the importance of collaboration and partnership to drive impact in the healthy longevity space—hopefully in our lifetime?

Andrew Scott: I think longevity is a hugely important issue, up there with AI and climate change in terms of its importance. If you think individually and collectively, few things are going to be as important for our future as how we each age. It’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? But how we age is not a simple thing. It depends on lots of different factors. It’s going to depend on the products that I purchase. It’s going to depend on what my employer does. It’s going to depend on the environment, my community, and social norms. It straddles so many different areas. I think whether it’s individuals, communities, or governments, we’ve got to really focus on how we support these now-longer lives. That is going to require a lot of very technocratic changes about the economy, the financial sector, and health systems. But above all, it’s really a personal thing. We know that people who live longer are those who have a sense of purpose, a sense of community, and a sense of engagement. So adapting to longer lives is, in some sense, the ultimate collaborative activity.

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