THE FOUNDATION FORUM
WEDNESDAY 23RD NOVEMBER 2016, WRITTEN UP WITH THE HELP OF SIMON OF CAULKIN
It’s not just Generation X, Y and Z that are changing. Generation U, V and W, as they were never known, are also busy re-writing the rulebook. ‘Retirement’ is retiring, longevity has rampant inflation, it’s coming to us all, yet it’s rarely discussed.
On 23rd November 2016 we gathered to hear four perspectives to shake us out of our ignorance:
Charles Handy, one the world’s leading management thinkers, alongside wife and photographer Liz, 84 and 76.
They brought a personal view of the key to fortunate old-hood, illuminating ideas in Charles’ recent book The Second Curve, the latest in a series that has foreseen or forecast portfolio working, shamrock organisations and a return to purposeful, human organisation in business. Liz is his life partner, a photographer who only started pursuing it seriously in her mid-40s. Now 30 years later it remains vibrantly at the heart of her life, covering subjects ranging from young entrepreneurs in Tottenham, where the 2011 London riots kicked off, to potato farmers in Ethiopia for an Irish charity.
Paul Flatters, founder of The Trajectory Partnership, a futures business with some deep thinking around older age living and a futures business leader with strong views on why we need to wake up to it.
Paul’s aim with Trajectory has been to make futures work more useful and less faddy, ensuring the future is better understood, better planned and less feared.
Andrew Haigh, long-standing pioneer of Coutts innovative Entrepreneurs practice and thereby advisor to many on life choices and the meaning of fortune.
Andrew’s work was a genuinely new approach for a high-end bank, being customer-led by organising not led by the financial value of clients but by the activities that had led to their success. This recognition was followed by a further realisation – that helping people with similar experiences talk to each other, not listen to a banker, was the most useful way for them to learn and find value in their offer. In the entrepreneurs’ world, much of this was about ‘post-exit’ life, a form of enforced retirement. Post Coutts, Andrew is now acting on his own advice across an eclectic mix of the arts and business.
We’re a sucker for stereotypes and habitually herd-like. So it’s no surprise we’re locked into looking to youth for our views of the future. For the last 50 years it’s been the right thing to do. But while Generation Z is bringing a strong set of values and digital nativity into the world, in many ways they’re more worried about fitting in and getting a foothold than ripping up yet more assumptions.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the telescope something much more fundamental is happening. We’re leaving behind the idea of working for decades and enjoying a short, leisurely retirement. We’re realising instead that we’re going to have as long post-work as in-work. Well we would if we had the funds to be post-work.
Funds aren’t the only issue though. When quantity of life becomes plentiful, outlasting the default content of work and kids, how to we fill our time? Individually, how do we stay interested and interesting? And collectively, at a societal level, how do we stay productive when formal employment at large organisations is unlikely to work because they’d end up full of oldies and nobody would ever join or get promoted?
As Charles Handy said to us in discussing the idea, old people don't cost much - they have plenty of clothes, they don't eat much and their house is paid for. What's more important is being useful, doing something valuable and feeling valued. In many ways it's a step towards happiness and away from GDP, the relative merits of which we have started to debate as we wonder why we seem to be so busy but getting no happier in the process. Maybe this question about later life is a big step in the right direction?
Or maybe that's being too optimistic. In this post-Brexit post-truth increasingly strident and decreasingly tolerant world we live in, maybe the old will become resented by the generations straining to make ends meet, working long hours and with debt not pension to accompany them into their own twilight years.
What unquestionable is the degree of change coming down the line, for individuals, for employers, for markets, for society. And yet it’s little discussed beyond a few familiar platitudes.
Our aim was to put this right. To get us thinking, giving us insight, foresight and a view of what might be coming down the line.
Four views on the way we can embrace a happy longer life, individually and as a society
The discussion that followed, as summed up by Simon Caulkin
What are old people for? Oddly, no one seems to know.
Scientifically, aging is an evolutionary puzzle. Socially, with some exceptions, most societies treat the elderly as if they were already in the departure lounge, at best with pity, more often with indifference or disdain; historically some even speeded them on their way. To many in officialdom, as social philosopher Charles Handy pointed out at an absorbing November Foundation Forum on the subject, they are simply invisible.
Age is most considered a disability: look it up and you get a depressing list of frailties the aging flesh is heir to, precious little about compensating pleasure or benefit. One writer begins her book on aging,
‘Getting old sucks. It always has. It always will.’
But more satisfying answers are suddenly now both important and pressing. Up until 100 years ago, with life expectancy hovering at its historic level in the mid-40s, the concerns of the old were a non-issue: there weren’t any. Now, however, societies are aging at the extraordinary rate of five hours a day.
The 85s and over are the fastest-growing age group in the UK, noted Paul Flatters, founder of futures consultancy the Trajectory Partnership. Their number will double to 5m by 2030, and by the end of this century there will be 1.5 million centenarians, up from 13,000 today. At least one-third of those born today will be alive in 2116, according to projections. Techno-utopians in Silicon Valley go further, arguing that just as the first great spurt in life expectancy was triggered by machine power and the Industrial Revolution, so the rapid convergence of robotics, AI and biotech will lead within decades to a ‘cure for death’ and ‘virtual immortality’. ‘[The changes are] not distant stuff. They’re happening now, and it’s moving quite rapidly’, summed up Flatters.
If youth knew; if age could. Getting beyond generational stereotypes to reconcile the two and tap the potential of age is urgent not just because of rising numbers. Of course, intergenerational friction over appearance, dress, manners, drinking habits and taste in music, to name a few, is never far from the surface. But this time, pointed out chairman Charlie Dawson, there is a real prospect of ‘serious grinding of gears’ between young and old. As in other cases, the conflict is amplified by austerity, far-reaching change in the job market and declining social mobility.
On the one hand the elderly are the heaviest consumers of society’s healthcare and support services, and, as any visit to a care home will confirm, among their number are some of society’s neediest members. On the other, said Andrew Haigh, previously head of client propositions at Coutts bank and now a consultant,
‘Baby boomers have been really good at exercising their power as a generation to accrete wealth to themselves’
– such that over-50s account for fully 68 per cent of UK household income, 77 per cent of financial assets and 66 per cent of property.
No wonder there is a sense of unfairness in the air that runs both ways (a new book just published is called The War on the Old). Today’s young adults are the first generation to be poorer than their parents (although this may be softened by inheritance – ‘all that property has to go somewhere,’ noted Flatters). This, as well as their numbers, means that the old carry real political clout, reflected most conspicuously in the notorious ‘triple lock’ on pensions and political upheaval culminating in last summer’s Brexit vote – which triggered sharp comments about the right of an older generation to decide a future which it won’t live to see for a younger one which will reap the consequences. Another recent book title, The Jilted Generation, adds a further recriminatory slant.
But it’s more complicated than this.
In their book The 100-year Life, Andrew Scott and Lynda Gratton describe ratcheting life expectancy as a huge potential gift, with the prospect of more experiences, multiple careers, and greater possibilities for self-actualisation. The longer the life the further we can travel. The catch is that life is at least to some extent path-dependent – so its end can equally well turn into a terrible burden. For it to be experienced as a boon – if living to 100 isn’t to mean giving up everything that you want to live to 100 for, as Woody Allen inimitably put it – those living the life have to take charge of it. From now on, people will have to invest in and curate their own lives better, more actively, and from an earlier age than ever before.
For better or worse, many of today’s elders are not starting from there. Consider too that while they are richer, they also face mounting material responsibilities. They must not only provide for their own later (and longer) care and that of their parents – they are also, pointed out Haigh, increasingly playing the part of ‘bank of mum and dad’. So even without the compulsion of a rising retirement age, living longer will undoubtedly entail earning longer, probably with several switches of career: even today’s entrepreneur imagining he or she can cash in with £2m at 40 and retire to the Bahamas may have to think again.
At the same time, people will need to be prepared for many more life changes that in the linear three-stage education-work-retirement trajectory that is now fragmenting before our eyes. ‘With each successive age cohort, life changes that are taking place after 50 or 55 are increasing’, Flatters said.
It’s around those life changes, he added, that many important spending decisions are made. Which is another reason for plucking the old from under their current blanket of invisibility. Their wants and needs will clearly be different from those of younger age groups – the old don’t go in much for fashion, or consume much of anything apart from heat, transport and other utilities, Liz and Charles Handy noted. But even if they become less materially driven with age, older people have other needs for sociability and feeling useful that often go begging because of their invisibility to the outside world.
There are rich business opportunities here, perhaps especially for social enterprises. Consider the Casserole Club, described by Haigh as ‘a 21st century reinvention of Meals on Wheels’. It helps people making food, perhaps for a family, connect with older neighbours, inviting them to make an extra portion and then to pop it round. It connects people across generations. Where Meals on Wheels was simply about delivering food on an industrial scape, Casserole Club is as much about social as nutritional sustenance. Yes, it’s a tech-enabled platform that emerged from social media – but it’s one for combatting isolation and developing community, and as such a sharing-economy app that actually deserves the name.
As for individuals, it’s up to the old to decide for themselves who they are and what they are for. With time no longer at a premium, filling it with wall-to-wall leisure and hobbies, the old retirement prescription, suddenly seems less appealing. There’s only so much appetite for golf or cruises. ‘All this doesn’t just happen,’ said Liz.
‘You have to plan your lives – you can’t rely on businesses doing it for you, or the state. You’ve just got to work out what you want in life and take hold of it’.
But take heart. As Dawson noted, Charles and Liz Handy eloquently demonstrated what an older person work and life ethic looks like, why it is important and how to make it happen. When the pair describe themselves as ‘the fortunate old’ and being 80 as ‘the best time of our lives’, it’s a reward for resisting fatalism and doing exactly that. ‘I’d like to think we’re a resource – if people knew we existed. But we try to be useful in our own way,’ said Charles. The Handys boil down the essentials of a good old age to three: work – not necessarily paid, but activity with purpose that gives value and is valued in return; health; and meeting people. Liz described a regime of early morning exercise (a brisk walk) followed by breakfast with a variety of interesting people of all ages – the exchanges at the same time a means of keeping current and connected, and in return of bringing older proportion, experience and connections to bear on life’s challenges.
Perhaps this foreshadows what a second curve for society as a whole might look like: a shift from quantity to quality, from consumption to reflection, from pursuing material success to nurturing relationships.
It may be no coincidence that Japan, which is sometimes called the first post-growth society, is furthest down the line to becoming happily post-youth too. ‘It’s salutary to see – it has an active, aging population, and it’s going to happen here,’ predicted Haigh.
Perhaps the old are ahead of the game. When the actress Shirley MacLaine was asked about the purpose of aging she replied:
‘To learn why you came in in the first place. We are the sole creators of the reality we are pleased with, or not.’
The Foundation's view
As we listened to the assembled wisdom taking shape, and in particular to the Handys becoming heroes of many on the night with their stream of self-deprecating common sense that was at the same time ground-breaking (and rather funny), we observed three big points emerging:
1. Cross generational pain
There is the potential for serious grinding of gears between younger and older generations. In this country, people in their 60s and beyond have a hair-raisingly high proportion of the wealth, and our children might be the first to have less than their parents. The recent Brexit vote saw a strong divide between old & out, and young & in, followed by sharp comments about whose right it was to choose our long term future. Could this snowball? There’s a strong overlap with having and not having, being stuck in a shared flat while old folk live in big echoing mansions, being saddled with debt while listening to old people talking about their investments, and so on. There was a counterpoint put forward by Paul, which is that houses, jobs and other forms of asset need to go somewhere and so adjustment is likely. The Autumn Statement from the Chancellor prepared the ground for a change to the triple lock on pensions as a topical example. The point is that the differences are extreme and both generations need to find their voice and take proactive steps to bridge the divide.
2. The invisibility cloak of age
What about realising the potential in our older generation, to be useful, to contribute, to buy things? Charles described a conceptual challenge from his perspective as an 84 year-old who’s healthy and out there, living life fully, being fortunate, not stuck in a care home which is the stereotype of the generation. Clearly there are a lot of people in that kind of unfortunate situation, but many more are like Charles and Liz – it’s just that they are invisible. Charles described filling in a US tax form and finding his birth year, 1932, wasn’t even on the form as an option (being invisible to the US tax authorities was not necessarily a problem he was looking to solve). In the UK he was called by a social researcher, and on explaining he was self-employed was given options to be in his 40s, 50s or 60s. On revealing he was 84 the researcher put the phone down. This matters. Products and services for this growing, wealthy, cohort won’t be the same as those for people in earlier lifestages. Material needs are largely satisfied, but social ones, like loneliness, can be tackled in smart ways. Andrew described the Casserole Club, referred to earlier (https://www.casseroleclub.com/), with the shift from Meals on Wheels to this has been from logistics and function to putting people in touch with people in a way that gives the perfect excuse to say hello. To get more of this to happen, the group needs to be seen, be thoughtfully understood and provided for. We have some self-interest in making this happen!
3. Quality not quantity of life
Given that material needs are small, life is all about leisure, right? Not so. Charles and Liz showed what an older person work ethic looks like, why it matters and how to go about making it happen. The aim is to be useful – to be valuable and valued as a result. The outcome is feeling current and being connected to other people, across generations. Liz described their routine – up at 7 with a lie-in to 7.30 on her birthday, out for a walk around the woods for reflection and time to talk, then breakfast, often with some ‘interesting younger people’ who can share what they’re doing and some of their challenges. This allows a bit of perspective to be provided, wisely and calmly, by the older hands, not giving answers but re-framing and making connections too as that’s another benefit of having been around for longer. This shift from things to time, from achievements to people, is something that society needs more widely too. The observation that higher GDP is entirely unconnected to higher happiness suggests that maybe here the old are ahead of the pack. Unlocking the potential of health, wealth and wisdom looks a bit like this?
If you’d like to explore more of the argument around this subject, you could also try a Handy book on the subject, via here http://www.lizhandy.net/charles-handys-books
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