Long life is not the problem – our culture is.

“Long lives are not the problem. The problem is living in cultures designed for lives half as long as the ones we have.” says Laura Carstensen, a professor of psychology and director at Stanford Center for Longevity in an opinion published on November 30, 2019 by Washington Post.

In the last century, better healthcare and various advancement in technology have added an average of 30 years to our life expectancy. Many of those born in this century will have a good chance of living past 100 years. Carstensen argues that while life expectancy has surged, human culture has not kept pace.

  • The traditional concept of retirement that spans four decades is not sustainable for most individuals and governments. The financial cost to take care of an individual who is “retired” and not working in the traditional sense will be too much to bear. One could argue that under our traditional model, you would not be able to save enough to last a long drawn out retirement for 40 or more years! In Singapore, the financial model would require setting aside an ever increasing CPF account at a savings rate that may not even be possible. Clearly, there must be a better financial model to cater to this longevity trend.
  • A formal education system that ends in your twenties when you will likely live to a hundred will not work for a society like Singapore. We need to focus on many stages of learning that does not just end when you finish formal schooling. Adults and seniors will need to commit to continuing education to remain productive and relevant – beyond the traditional educational system. Clearly, there has to be a process of “unlearning and relearning”. For example, seniors who are unwilling to educate themselves on all things internet and technology will be severely handicapped — if they have to live in the future world for another two or three decades!
  • Instead of 2-3 generations, families of the future may include 4-5 generations. Our social, religious and cultural norms that dictate inter generational roles and responsibilities will be tested. Familial bonds will need to change as generations intermingle. Thorny subjects like inter generational wealth transfers beyond the traditional bequest when one generation passes on will need to be discussed.

As a society, longevity presents us with a great opportunity to redesign our society and the way we achieve happiness. What is clear is that we cannot cling on to the older ways of viewing ageing and retirement. Accordingly, the author also cautions us about “setting the bar too low” when we seek to redesign our cultural norms.

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