Why leaders need a longevity strategy

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Why leaders need a longevity strategy

May 15, 2024

Countries with aging populations can reap the benefits of more senior employees

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by Geoff Poulton
Illustrations by Matthias Seifarth

People are living longer than ever before. Yet even as older people are establishing themselves as a growing social and economic force, the public and private sectors are still working to overcome the hurdles of bias and unlock the potential of a new demographic era.

When Joe Biden announced he would run for reelection in the 2024 US presidential race, one topic soon grabbed headlines: his age. If Biden is reelected in November 2024, he will be just two weeks short of his 82nd birthday. Many Americans believe that is too old for the grueling demands of one of the world's most high-profile, high-pressure jobs. But at a time in which we are living longer, healthier lives than ever, could this simply be unconscious bias at play – a reflection of what may be the last acceptable "ism": ageism?

77.3 years old: The projected global life expectancy at birth in 2050

Source: World Economic Forum

Longevity and our attitudes toward age are topics that require increasingly urgent attention. "I'd go as far as saying the dramatic changes we'll experience in demographics over the next few decades is probably the number two issue the world is facing, after climate change," says Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, a researcher and author who works with the UK's National Innovation Centre for Ageing and Stanford's Center on Longevity.

Crop of an illustration by Matthias Seifarth of people stretching - one bald and bearded man wearing sunglasses, shirt, tie and spearmint green-colored pants. Only extended legs in leggings and black boots are visible for the other person.
Staying flexible: The increasing age of the workforce means it's not just older workers who will need to keep learning to stay agile in their careers – society will also need to adapt and grow alongside them.

62.3% of consumer spending: The projected share of total national consumption spending by the 50+ age group in the US in 2050.

Source: AARP

With longer life expectancy and sinking birth rates transforming the traditional demographic pyramid, older people are now more important to our societies and economies. Just over a century ago, the average global life expectancy was a mere 32 years. It has since more than doubled to 73. By 2050, the number of people aged 60-plus will have doubled to 2.1 billion. Meanwhile, fertility rates are plummeting: from 4.7 births per woman in 1960 to 2.3 today, only just above the “replacement rate” of 2.1 that keeps a population stable.

An aging population means health care and pension systems will have more people to support with fewer contributors; a dwindling number of younger workers, particularly in rich countries, will put greater emphasis on migration and technology. For businesses, it's "up there with sustainability and AI in terms of a transformative trend firms need to engage with," says Andrew Scott, professor at London Business School and the author of The 100-Year Life (with Lynda Gratton) and the upcoming The Longevity Imperative.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox is a researcher at the National Innovation Centre for Ageing, UK, and Stanford's Center on Longevity.

The "longevity economy" will see older people become increasingly important for workforces. In 1990, people between 45 and 64 accounted for 28% of the working-age population in OECD countries. That's now 40%. And for business, there's also an often overlooked opportunity in an aging population – spending power. According to AARP, a US-based nonprofit focused on aging, the 50-plus generation already accounts for half of global consumer spending. By 2050, this will reach nearly 60%, or $96 trillion. Despite these impressive numbers, many organizations still underappreciate the importance of older generations, both as workers and consumers, says Scott. "When we underestimate the capacity of older people then we exclude them from economic and social activity too much and we underinvest in our own later years. That is a major problem as we live longer lives."

This can be seen in the products and services created for older generations, says Colum Lowe, Director of the UK's Design Age Institute, which aims to promote more inclusive design across a variety of sectors. "Too many companies focus on what they think older people need and not what they want. They believe that once you get to 65, you don't have any desires anymore. But most older people want to have fun and enjoy life – and their money." Lowe also encourages companies to think more about their marketing: "By making it obvious that something is 'for older people,' not only do younger people not want it, but older consumers don't either."

"It's a transversal, cross-disciplinary issue, but it's struggling to enter the mainstream conversation. It's not on the leadership radar yet."

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox

National Innovation Centre for Ageing, UK, and Stanford's Center on Longevity

When it comes to the workplace, firms often fall into the trap of assuming older workers are less productive, innovative or capable of change, despite a lack of empirical evidence. Younger managers, meanwhile, can struggle to manage older subordinates, in part because they still think they should know more about the work, regardless of their experience. Older workers also find it harder to get jobs and jobseekers aged 50 and over can take twice as long to find new employment compared with younger workers. To address this, companies must make longevity a greater priority. "Right now, it's tacked on to the DEI agenda – that doesn't acknowledge the fact that this is going to change markets, needs and talent availability," says Avivah Wittenberg-Cox. "It's a transversal, cross-disciplinary issue, but it's struggling to enter the mainstream conversation. It's not on the leadership radar yet."

As we enter a new demographic era, the traditional three-stage approach to life – learn, work, retire – needs a rethink. Stanford's Longevity Center predicts 100-year life expectancy will be common for those born today. As a result, flexibility, lifelong learning, and more transitions between jobs will become the norm – an approach that suits workers of all ages, even those beyond the traditional retirement age, who may continue to work, whether for financial reasons or simply for enjoyment and a desire to contribute.

Some companies are already beginning to take steps in this direction. Employees participating in Unilever's U-Work employment model are paid a monthly retainer for committing to a certain number of weeks a year to work on short-term projects. Crucially, they also receive benefits, pension contributions, paid leave and stipends for further education. They can also choose to work on further projects for additional compensation. Unilever believes the approach will help it retain talent, particularly parents and older workers, and increase the diversity of its workforce.

"If you don't have a longevity strategy today, you practically don't have a growth strategy."

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox

National Innovation Centre for Ageing, UK, and Stanford's Center on Longevity

According to OECD research, companies with "thriving intergenerational workforces" tend to see higher productivity than those skewed too heavily toward just one end of the age spectrum. Andrew Scott says maximizing age diversity is vital for firms looking to tap into the longevity economy. "Combining new technological insights that tend to be most strongly evidenced in the young with deep knowledge of markets, customers and ways of operation will bring about better outcomes than each group working alone. Moving away from hierarchical groups will also be important."

While older workers will have likely accumulated valuable expertise and experiences, to maximize their contribution to the longevity economy, they will also need to learn new skills, especially as digitalization becomes more widespread. This means companies must ensure they provide the right opportunities for further training and education. Japanese conglomerate Mitsubishi Corporation, for instance, has a dedicated "career design center" offering a range of training options aimed at extending the careers of its older employees.

an illustration by Matthias Seifarth
Mature approach: If leaders establish their longevity strategies now, their companies will be set up for growth with a senior workforce that is fit for the future.

The responsibility for facilitating the success of the longevity economy doesn't just lie with the private sector. Public policy has a vital role to play in helping people remain healthy and productive in later life. Some governments have even introduced subsidies for companies that do hire older workers, including Korea, Canada and Australia. It's also important to remember that contract employment isn't the only option: Research by AARP and Oxford Economics has found that people in their 50s and 60s start businesses at nearly twice the rate of those in their 20s, with higher startup survival rates. "Olderpreneurs have a number of needs that could be addressed through changes in laws and policies and by educational organizations," says the Global Coalition on Aging, from preferable health care to pension arrangements.

Wittenberg-Cox, a long-time researcher into gender disparity, says there are plenty of similarities with the current emergence of longevity as a serious issue. "25 years ago, it was women becoming more important in labor forces, companies and consumer consciousness; now it's older people." Much like gender, this is a topic that affects every country and every company – businesses that don't act will suffer, she says. "If you don't have a longevity strategy today, you practically don't have a growth strategy."

About the author
Portrait of Geoff Poulton
Geoff Poulton
Geoff's writing on innovation and sustainability has been published by The Guardian, The Times, and Deutsche Welle. He has also worked on content creation with global brands such as BMW and Airbus. After a long spell in Germany, he worked in London before heading to write by the sea in Cornwall.
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