Editorial: Living to 100

Prospect Magazine

Editorial: Living to 100

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Bronwen Maddox introduces the March issue

Living to 100 is becoming "the new normal." What might you do with the extra time?

Would it change your life if you thought you were likely to live to 100? That is becoming “the new normal.” The Office for National Statistics has said that a third of babies born in Britain last year are expected to live for a full century (£), a projection repeated across the industrialised world, despite the scourge of obesity and other “diseases of the rich.” The preserve of a few will be common.

What might you do with all those years—those “bonus years,” as Garrison Keillor puts it (£)? “Lovely. I think I’m ready for it,” he concludes, though noting that “the medical care that delivers you to your centenary does not guarantee that the package arrives intact.” For Wendell Steavenson (£), it would be “a second act.”

It would be a deep pity if this retreat of the horizon, an astonishing phenomenon of our time, was not indeed greeted as a new chance, as well as a tribute to medical ingenuity in defeating illness. Whether people do welcome it for themselves will of course depend on whether their own lives have yielded what they wanted, or dealt repeated blows. But the accounts here will echo the answers that many would give—more children, ambitions for writing, a new country or line of work entirely—the chance to add another vivid episode, of the kind that makes people feel that they have really lived.

There is a darker side to this long future. That is not just the vision of a hotter, stormier planet which Sam Knight projects (£); I, for one, have more confidence than he does in people’s ability to devise technology to tackle the problem, although as Ed Davey points out, cuts in emissions will not be cheap. But as John Plender argues in our report (£), the rise in longevity, coupled with the revolution in work, has shattered the ability to plan and pay for the future. How do you save for old age—or hard times, or even a degree or your first house or flat—in an era of almost zero interest rates, when the security of your job may have plummeted? There are answers, but they are not comfortable.

One is that everyone will have to work for longer. That is one effect of the shambles of pensions policy, during this government and Labour (a theme to which Prospect will return). This is, too, the way that national debt and deficits will most easily be brought down, although ministers have not deigned or dared to say so. There isn’t a winning campaign in the call to “work until you die, minus perhaps about 20 years,” but it’s one of the answers. If you can get work, that is. Pier Carlo Padoan, chief economist of the OECD, makes forcefully (£) the undeniable point that Britain has not done enough to train young people or help them into the workforce, at huge cost to them and the country’s future.

The rise in longevity is not just good news: it is a liberation from the most obvious and final constraint on our ambitions that transforms our imagination of our future. The job for governments is to break the news about the costs, while making it possible for people to ask, with eagerness not fear, “what would I do with all that extra time?”

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Bronwen Maddox

Bronwen Maddox
Bronwen Maddox is Prospect's editor 


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