It's been a long time since I attended a conference where I found myself looking forward to every panel discussion. But that was precisely the feeling I had this past Monday, when I attended the launch of The Longevity Forum, the latest organisation to emerge on the UK's burgeoning ageing scene.
The Longevity Forum takes a two-pronged approach to the demographic realities of a globally ageing population. It is, on the one hand, interested in the potential for current scientific research to extend the lifespan. But it is also focused on the social and behavioural changes needed to adapt to this age of longevity.
The inaugural event to launch the Forum was invitation-only, so this blog shares five interesting ideas I took away:
a. The science of longevity is developing rapidly. Age has long been the main risk factor for highly prevalent diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and neuro-degeneration. But new scientific research in areas ranging from organ regeneration to gene sequencing to molecular manipulation are beginning to alter this equation. A scientist on the Juvenescence panel at the conference noted that there are more than 800 genes that can potentially modify life span by, for example, inducing humans to take in fewer calories as they age. Another panellist spoke of treatments in development that might enable us to reverse engineer the age of certain cells so as to prevent chronic diseases like Alzheimer's and diabetes. The bottom line is that not only our life span, but our health span, is an increasingly malleable concept. So the action is now in identifying biological markers of ageing that can more accurately track where an individual is really at on a range of risk factors, so as to help design more effective disease treatments.
b. We need to change the way that we think about time. Given that our biological age is increasingly out of sync with our chronological age, we also need to think differently about time. The modern obsession with our chronological age - embodied in 65 as the definition of "old" - is a relatively new phenomenon. But if there is a "longevity dividend" due to the fact that we are, on average, living longer and healthier lives, then we need to shift away from arbitrary, numerical measures of old age. We also need to abandon the traditional idea of a neatly arranged, three-staged life comprised of education, career and retirement, as Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott advocate in their book, The 100 Year Life. Instead, we need to embrace a multiple-phased life course where people keep learning throughout their lives, take lots of breaks and dip in and out of jobs and careers.
c. Lifelong learning should begin early. One corollary of this new model of the life course is that adults increasingly need what Gratton and Scott call "transformational assets" - those skills that increase the success of transitions and reduce the costs and uncertainty of change across the life course. I myself have advocated for more formal soft skill training for older adults to equip them for the 21st century. But one of the more interesting project ideas to come out of the conference was one looking at how to enable this sort of soft skills training at scale from a very young age.
d. Older people are a largely untapped natural resource. That's not my wording, it's Marc Freedman's. Freedman is the CEO of Encore.org, a US-based organisation devoted tapping the skills and experiences of older workers in the United States for social good. One of Encore's signature programmes is the Encore Fellowship, which places older workers in a social purpose organisation for 6-12 months and pays them (via corporate sponsorship) to provide advice and input on a high-impact assignment. This sort of creative response to an ageing workforce is but one prong in the sort of inter-generational learning Freeman advocates in his new book, How to Live Forever. The idea is that older workers - who benefit from deeper knowledge, greater empathy and, above all, more time - can nurture younger workers, who crave guidance and bring their own 21st century skills to the table. As of Monday, there is now an Encore Fellowship programme in the UK which will be affiliated with the Longevity Forum.
e. Ageing policy cannot afford to be one size fits all. In policy terms, one of the main takeaways from the conference was that given the diversity of what "old" now looks like (living longer, healthier lives is only on average) - universal benefits that affect the elderly need to be more flexible. Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen cited research in the United States showing up to a 20 year differential between some of the richest and poorest zip codes in terms of the predicted age of death, (zip code being a proxy for affluence). In light of persistent socio-economic inequities here in the UK, a number of panellists, including Lord David Willetts, argued for means-testing things like the free bus and tube pass for people over 60 as well as the state pension system.
One panellist nicely summarised the agenda for the future as follows: we need a new narrative about the life course. And that narrative needs to be one that we can introduce to everyone, not only those who (happily) count ourselves among the pioneers of the new old age.
About the Author
Delia Lloyd is a Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. A seasoned writer and editor, she worked for a decade in radio, print and online journalism. Her reporting and commentary have been featured on outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian and The BBC World Service.
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