Dear 2018 Graduates:
Congratulations and welcome to your historically long lives, where many of you will do something truly unprecedented: live in three different centuries. Think about it. You were born at the end of the 20th century — the one that produced the scientific invention, medicine, and technology that increased average life expectancy from our forties at the beginning of that century to today’s 72 — and climbing. You will live most of your lives during the 21st century, when we are reaping the benefits of this miracle. And many of you will live into the 22nd, covering a longer span than any previous generation.
This is a big deal; a human legacy that you must cherish and protect, even as you make sure the fruits of longevity are extended and enjoyed globally. That it is, not only you here in America, or your counterparts in London, Tokyo, and now Beijing — but also those in Dhaka, Lilongwe, and Quito. The “how” of this profound challenge is what I would like to discuss with you today, and it has to do with three areas of society: culture, work, and government.
First, we must exorcise ageism from our culture. This subtle, stubborn, and powerful foe perpetuates two related myths: that we must decline and deteriorate as we age; and that this decline is “just old age”. These assumptions assume that conditions of aging — heart failure to vision loss — are inevitable parts of the aging process and themselves determine how we live.
Undoing this culture of ageism will be just as important for enabling healthy ageing as medical advances and health policy. To fully address the exploding prevalence of age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and heart failure, we must approach them as urgent, solvable health challenges, not as sad certainties. Ageism has no place in a world where lives routinely stretch into the 100s. For the first time in human history, your generation can expect to grow old, and you must prepare for this by ending ageism.
Second, we must reimagine work for longer lives. The 20th century model of working for 40 years and retiring at 60 or so is a terrible fit today. It’s awful for individuals, since our mental and emotional health deteriorates as we withdraw from work, which itself has negative effects on physical health. It’s defeating for employers, who will struggle to find needed skills and talent if workers retire prematurely. And it’s bad for the overall economy, which cannot support such a large proportion of the population not working. Forward-looking businesses are taking notice as more of those places you’re looking for jobs — Deloitte, Intel, Home Instead Senior Care — are embracing the newly minted Age Friendly Business Principles. Don’t be surprised if the commitment to environmentally friendly workplaces is joined by age friendly workplaces. Places where 73 and 32- year-olds work side by side to give competitive advantage to their employers.
Your generation will reshape work itself to match your historically long lives. This is new. You will have the chance to make the rules; to create something no other generation has experienced. A solution will involve not just working longer, but working differently — changing the what, where, and how of work. And, as you re-invent work and reframe retirement, you will also reframe how you save, invest and plan.
Third, we must focus public policy. Traditionally, government’s approach to aging has been concerned only with providing support and subsidy to the old, such as Medicare and Social Security. This one-dimensional approach will prove unsustainable in the years and decades ahead. As the WEF reports, that on our current course the world will face a $400-trillion gap in retirement savings by 2050. As the 2010 S&P Global Aging Report put it, “No other force is likely to have as much impact on the future of national economic health, public finances and policymaking as the irreversible rate at which the world’s population is aging.”
So rather than seeing older citizens as mere victims, government should focus on incentives that enable citizens to stay active, healthy, and productive much longer. Facilitate innovations to stop or mitigate the conditions of aging, along with cures for the diseases of aging. And, financial wellness for independence, activity, engagement, and happiness as we grow old.
So, graduates, as you go out into the world today, you carry with you the benefits of our era of longevity. Yes, cherish, protect, respect it. But, most importantly, consider how you will transform society to meet this new reality. Recall your Western Civilization courses four years ago, where the great 18th century thinkers were creating a new Social Contract that led to our American Democracy. In your time, the mega trend of aging may mean nothing less than a new social contract — go for it!