Making the most of our ‘extra time’ – for ourselves and society

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(Huyen Nguyen, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Camilla Cavendish, Contributing Editor and Weekly Oped Columnist, FT Weekend, The Financial Times Group


This is an extract of Camilla Cavendish’s book Extra Time: 10 Lessons for an Ageing World.

In 2018, a Dutchman began a court battle to make himself legally 20 years younger. Emile Ratelband, 69, told a court in Arnhem in the Netherlands that he did not feel ‘comfortable’ with his official chronological age, which did not reflect his emotional state – and was preventing him from finding work, or love online. He wanted to change his date of birth from 11 March 1949 to 11 March 1969.

Doctors had told him that his body was that of a 45-year-old, Ratelband argued. ‘When I’m 69,’ he said, ‘I am limited. If I’m 49, I can take up more work. When I’m on Tinder and it says I’m 69, I’m outdated.’ His friends had urged him to lie, he claimed, but ‘if you lie, you have to remember everything you say’.

Ratelband compared his quest to be identified as younger with that of people who wish to be identified as transgender – implying that age should be fluid. He said his parents were dead, so could not be upset by his desire to turn back the clock. He even offered to waive his right to a pension.

Ratelband, a ‘positivity coach’, is a provocateur who enjoys attention. The court turned him down, ruling that an age change would have ‘undesirable implications’ for legal rights, such as the right to vote. But this seemingly frivolous case actually illustrates something profound: we are on the cusp of an entirely new period in our history, which is coming at us fast.

This is the advent of Extra Time.

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If you are in your fifties or sixties today, you have a very good chance of living into your nineties. If you play your cards right and have luck on your side, many of those years could be healthy and productive. Our chronological age is becoming decoupled from our biological capabilities.

In football, ‘extra time’ is the period when there’s everything still to play for. That will be true for many of us. Droves of people are ‘unretiring’ and going back to work. Advances in biology and neuroscience will help us stay younger longer. But our institutions, and our societies, have not caught up. Ratelband’s looks, his physical strength, his ambitions are out of kilter with what we traditionally associate with being 69. He feels compelled to go to the extreme lengths of changing his birth date. Why can’t we, instead, just change our view of what it means to be 69?

The Fierce Urgency of 100

In 1917, King George V of England sent the first ever telegram to a centenarian. It was handwritten, and delivered by bicycle. In 2017, Queen Elizabeth II sent out thousands of 100th birthday cards, with a team of seven employed to administer them all.

The era of Extra Time will see a growing number of centenarians. The Office for National Statistics estimates that one in three babies born in Britain today will live to 100. Some scientists even think we could live to 150 (as we will see in Chapter 6).

This should be a fairy tale. Instead, there are widespread fears that we are sitting on a ‘demographic time bomb’, with droves of elderly people about to bankrupt governments and hurt GDP. If people get less creative as they age, and stop work around 60, economies could slump and younger generations could face crippling taxes.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. More and more people, like Emile Ratelband, have no desire to retire. Fears about the declining ratio of workers to pensioners rest on the offi cial defi nition of ‘working age’, as 15–64. But David Hockney became the world’s foremost iPad painter at 76; Tina Turner made the cover of Vogue at 73; Yuichiro Miura climbed Everest aged 80. Warren Buffett is still investing in his eighties and David Attenborough is making hit TV series in his nineties. Behind them stride loads of ordinary people who see Extra Time as an opportunity, who are starting businesses and are highly productive. They can defuse the time bomb.

Will they be fit enough? When a football match goes into Extra Time, there’s a premium on fitness. Here, the omens are pretty good. Today’s seventy-somethings are sprightlier than ever before, and the incidence of dementia is falling. There is work to do, though, on health inequalities. Increases in life expectancy have slowed in the UK,2 where the average life expectancy at birth is now 82 for women and nudging 80 for men. In America, life expectancy at birth has dropped for three years in a row,3 partly because of the opioid epidemic. Both countries face a battle against obesity – and poverty (see pages 19 and 23).

Globally, demographers think these dips in life expectancy are probably blips. The twenty-first century will be defined by people living longer, in societies which are growing older much faster than we have fully realised. But are they ageing faster? Only if you cling to out-of-date notions of what it means to be 50, 65 or 80.

 

Islands of Extra Time

On the Pacific island of Okinawa, there is no word for retirement. The longest-living women in the world are still caring for great-grandchildren when they hit their 100s. Okinawans are rarely lonely, because they are supported by a network of friends, the ‘moai’, who are committed to share both good times and bad. The typical Okinawan house doesn’t have much furniture: people tend to eat sitting on the floor, so they are getting up and down many times a day. They also have a strong sense of ‘ikigai’, roughly translated as ‘reason for being’. My Japanese friends tell me that you find your ikigai at the place where your values intersect with what you enjoy doing, and what you are good at.

Okinawa is one of the Blue Zones, the parts of the world identified by researcher Dan Buettner, where people have low rates of chronic disease and live exceptionally long lives. While it’s not possible to distil a single magic ingredient, common to all Blue Zones are plant based diets with very little processed food, strong friendships and a sense of purpose, lots of sleep and strenuous physical activity.

We can’t all live on islands, getting up with the sun and tilling the soil. But the Blue Zones do suggest that what we think of as ‘normal’ may be a very poor version of what our natural selves could be. And that is incredibly positive.

Why I Wrote This Book

I started writing this book in 2016, after my beloved father died. He had dreaded getting ‘old’, so much so that it whittled down his life much too early. I remember his gloom on his fi ftieth birthday. As we sat together on his favourite cliff in Cornwall, watching the waves break below, he said he felt that everything was ‘over’. I was a child, and 50 was older than I could imagine. But I did notice, from that point on, that my father started to think of himself in a different way. He would say ‘Oh, I’m too old for that’ with a sigh. After my mother left him, he refused to get a cat, although he adored them, on the basis that it might outlive him and be left homeless. He was 58 when he got divorced, and missed our two cats, Arthur and Merlin, most terribly (they went with my mother in the divorce, along with a hotly contested dining table). He ended up living, in largely excellent health, to 86. And he lived all that time without cats, who could have kept him company.

After he died, I couldn’t stop thinking about the way age can become a barrier.

My mother lied about her age until she was 72, because she was terrified she would lose her job as a secretary, and default on the mortgage she took out after the divorce. This created a huge burden of deception. She never dared join the company pension scheme for fear of being found out. She also hated the feeling that, as her looks dwindled, she was becoming invisible. She refused to let my children call her ‘Granny’, or refer to her in any way as a grandmother, which made things awkward between them.

In conventional terms, my parents were ‘old’ – almost 40 – by the time they conceived me. They’d met at Oxford University in the 1950s, she a glamorous American who’d grown up in Greenwich, Connecticut, he the bookish son of an English vicar. Their world was an intellectual, bohemian one of artists and academics for whom work was passion, savings in the bank negligible and ‘retirement’ anathema. My father dictated his final article for History Today magazine from a bed in Charing Cross Hospital. My mother was campaigning to help a friend get his job back when she had her final heart attack.

My thoughts about my parents chimed with my growing professional awareness of our fatalism about older people. As a journalist, and through my work for the Department of Health, I have met many compassionate nursing and care staff struggling against tick-box cultures and low pay. When I sat on the board of our national hospital and care-home regulator, it was clear that patients were being warehoused in post-war silos. As head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, I worked to introduce the sugar tax and other measures to combat obesity, a condition which is making people old before their time, but is portrayed as a ‘choice’. And I felt that media excitement about living to 100 jarred with a lack of ambition about what that should mean.

I have written this book to challenge our notions of ageing, and find out what different countries are doing to build a new world for Extra Time.

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