To the Class of 2016: Get Ready for a Long Life – and This Major Challenge

To the Class of 2016: Get Ready for a Long Life – and This Major Challenge

REUTERS/Mike Theiler

Congratulations! And welcome to the rest of your historically long lives.

It’s worth reflecting on a semantic point for a moment: there’s a reason this is called a “commencement address.” The word commencement means the beginning, not the end. Never before has this been more poignant than it is today.

So, here you sit, adorned in cap and gown, beneficiaries of centuries of miracle breakthroughs in science and medicine. If you play the odds, you can expect to celebrate birthdays that luminaries of centuries past could not have dreamed of.  

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In the Renaissance, Michelangelo was 74 when he became the architect for St Peter’s Basilica, and he was even older when he took on the Sistine Chapel. 

But never in the history of humanity have so many of us lived for so long. A conservative calculation estimates that, by mid-century, there will be 2 billion people over the age of 60. A hundred years ago, there weren’t even that many people on Earth.  

As for you, the twenty-somethings in the audience today can reasonably expect to live to see three different centuries.

So as you commence the rest of your life, I am happy confirm something you have long suspected: Your parents are dead wrong. The ways they structured their careers, the ways that they saved, the ways they thought about education: This won’t work for you.

You are embarking into a new, older world. A half-century ago, a woman in India could only hope to live 45 years and would expect to have six babies. Today, she may hit 70 and have only two or three children. And India is not the exception, but the norm. 

The consequences are seismic. The institutions of modern life – including the university – will have to be fundamentally re-structured and re-thought. This is the opening of the 21st century. It is a time as transformative as the Enlightenment or the Industrial Revolution.

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And so I ask you: How will you respond?

I do not claim to have the answer. But I think I can offer a starting point. We need to bring innovation to work, education and health care. These are the cornerstone institutions of modern society – and they’re also in dire need of innovation.

But first, I think it’s worth spending a moment defining innovation. For a number of social and economic reasons, we’ve developed a collective myth that innovation is the domain of tech startups and billion-dollar unicorns.

Not so. Innovation is about solutions to problems. Some of the most critical innovations today are low-tech and no-tech, and I implore you not to worship the false idols of Silicon Valley. I want to dare you to think outside the phone.

One revealing example comes from Home Instead Senior Care. Home Instead, hardly an Apple or a Google, has just won Queen Elizabeth’s Award for Innovation. Why? They’re disrupting the way we provide care to those who need it. They’re solving the problem of costly, callous institutional care by innovating elder caregiving.

Perhaps it’s less sexy to some than smart socks or a blue-tooth enabled cocktail shaker, but it’s hugely important at this moment in human history.

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So with this idea of innovation – that it brings new solutions to problems, that it can shake up outdated ways of doing things – that you can re-think and re-calibrate our society’s institutions to meet our 21st century needs.

First, there’s work. As you think about a 50 to 60-year career, forget the one-and-done, get-a-gold-watch-at-your-retirement model. Some have suggested that the “career ladder” model be replaced with “career lattice” – where you move not up and down, but side-to-side, and in-and-out of careers. It’s a useful way to think about it – and it’s a handy answer to have when, later today, your aunt asks you, Now what?

There’s also this idea of “retirement age.” What does that even mean? It was a construct of the 19th century Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck. It’s arbitrary, and retrograde.

The leading financial institutions – BlackRock, Bank of America, Aegon – are moving on and re-thinking financial planning for all you soon-to-be centenarians. You would be wise to move along with them.

Second, there’s education – perhaps the one institution most resistant to change. Sure, there’s MOOCs and online learning, but that’s superficial. It’s only a change in the how not in the what or the why. Marc Freedman’s concept of an “encore career” is an outstanding exception.

But real innovation will only come when other institutions of society weigh in. It will only come when employers, both public and private, recognize that they have interests in changing the how and what of education. 

Third, and finally, there’s health care. Everyone loves to hate health care – until they need it. In that way, health care has become a lot like the legal profession.

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But unlike law, health care is at the brink of a massive overhaul – and it is your duty to ensure that things go right. With two billion of us over 60, the absence of disease isn’t enough. Good health can’t be defined by the absence of a negative.  

Your challenge – scientifically, medically, and fiscally – is beating non-communicable diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s. If you don’t they will beat you, and all of us.  

Alzheimer’s, as one example, already consumes 1 percent of global GDP, sucking out precious resources and destroying lives. And as more of us celebrate our 80th, 90th, and 100th birthdays, these numbers are only going up.

At a global level, we are seeing progress. The World Health Organization has turned its focus to what it calls “functional ability” in old age. That means that our global health is threatened not just by conventional communicable diseases – TB, HIV AIDs, flu -- or even the newer NCDs – cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cancer -- but also skin health,  vision, muscle and bone mass deterioration.

When my generation was your age, we set out to fight communicable diseases. Your generation has a different goal – maintaining functional ability so that across our lives, even as we grow old, we can add value, happiness and health to our long lives. Moreover, functional ability is the only path to realizing economic growth in an era of longevity.

What all of this builds up to – new ways of working, learning and thinking about health – is that a whole new chapter of life is being written, both for you and by you.

So I ask again: how will you respond?

The weight of four generations is on your back. Your parents and grandparents are depending on you. Your children cannot inherit a world built for a different time.

This is, indeed, your commencement: You are beginning the most important fight of your life.