When is your brain at its best? It depends what you are trying to do. Your late teens are when you are probably fastest at number calculation. Your short-term memory peaks in your thirties. Your social understanding is at its highest a decade or two later.
These descriptions don’t apply to everyone. There is large variation within age groups. And being engaged and enquiring can keep your brain fitter for longer. In The New Long Life, Andrew Scott and Lynda Gratton, say: “The real reason you can’t teach an old dog new tricks is not because the dog has become old, but because it has not continually learnt new tricks.”
The authors have a distinguished record in this field. Scott is a professor of economics at London Business School and a consulting scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Longevity, and Gratton is a professor of management practice at LBS.
Their previous work, The 100-Year Life, made an influential contribution to understanding the consequences of increased longevity.
This book, while covering some of the same ground, is broader, taking aim at one of our best-entrenched and most outdated structures: the three-stage life. The first stage was traditionally spent growing up and getting educated. The second was consumed by working, making money and raising children. The third was spent in retirement.
In the old days, the three-stage life largely worked, at least in the developed world. It allowed many to support a family, buy a house and look forward to a pension. Today, few young people can afford a house and many of the elderly don’t have adequate pensions. The three-stage life has broken down.
Governments partly accept this, which is why they are raising the retirement age. Employers, with a few exceptions, have carried on as though the three-state life is still with us.
Not everything the authors try to do comes off. They introduce us to some characters to illustrate their points: Radhika, a college-educated Mumbai freelance worker, Tom, a Dallas truck driver, and others. But they are not fleshed out, so when their names come up it is hard to remember who they are.
And Scott and Gratton chase after so many research papers that their narrative occasionally meanders.
But their argument is robust and their themes sufficiently important to make this book essential reading for policymakers and chief executives.
We are not just living longer. Many of us are also healthier for longer. This may sound strange when the world has been upended by a virus that kills mostly the old, a calamity that came after Scott and Gratton had written their book
While the deaths are tragic, they are not going to noticeably thin the ranks of the elderly. Nor will they change the fundamental dilemma of many developed countries, as well as China: that they have too few young people to support a dependent older population. It is not tolerable for those who have spent decades working to retire into poverty. Nor, as Scott and Gratton point out, is it fair for youngsters to pay higher taxes to fund their parents and grandparents’ pensions when they have so little hope of decent pensions themselves.
Governments, employers and the over-65s have to take action, the writers say. Governments, for example, need to help reshape education, making it a life-long process rather than something people do only in their teens and early 20s. Employers need to understand the value of older workers. While the authors decry the stereotyping that labels generations as baby boomers, millennials and so on, they point to research that shows that while some mental capacities decline with age, older employees often demonstrate “crystallised” intelligence — “the information, knowledge, wisdom and strategies that are accumulated over time”.
What is required from employers is well-known but rarely acted on: flexible ways of dealing with older staff, such as consulting projects and reduced working weeks in return for lower pay.
But older workers need to reimagine their lives too: investing in continuing education, thinking of what work they could do next and keeping in touch with younger people.
And avoid retirement villages, the authors say. Multigenerational living helps old dogs learn new tricks.
Get alerts on Non-Fiction when a new story is published