What if our longer lives could improve all of our lives?
There is always a silver lining. I believe the challenges of the longevity revolution could be a catalyst for creating healthy lives instead of just healthy ageing.
COVID brought us plenty of pain and suffering, but it also made us stop and reflect on what is important in life and think of ways to live differently. Another current challenge, which should make us stop and ponder is the longevity revolution. The fact that we are living longer lives is of course a happy one, but it also creates a wide range of age related financial, societal and individual challenges. Where is the silver lining here?
Allow me to share some personal reflections with you. Imagine a new baby being born today. Let´s call him Bob. Bob will grow up in a society where it is custom to divide your life into three phases: Learning, Earning and finally Resting as he retires. He will also grow up in a highly competitive culture that favours individual achievements. I like to see things visually, and here is my poor attempt to show how I see Bob´s life (I apologize for the lack of artistic skills).
We can imagine him standing at the bottom of a mountain looking at the top, where he imagines the peak of his life lies (we all know the narrative of life being all downhill from 50). At the peak, Bob imagine a goal consisting of something that can fulfil his (and his parents) innate and culturally enhanced cravings for status, beauty, money and safety. For most of his life, he will focus on this goal. Unfortunately, this focus is not healthy for neither his physical health nor his mental well-being and he will see a lot of his fellow mountain-climbers burn out or get sick along the way. Furthermore, most of his retirement will spend in ill health, because he wasn´t allowed to look after himself earlier in his life.
What has been the focus of the longevity revolution this far has been to find ways to live longer lives and in better health. Unfortunately, we have not been very successful in the last part. The increase in the so-called HALE number (Healthy life expectancy ) has not kept pace with the increase in life expectancy  . Bob will live longer than his grandparents, but he is still stuck in the old-fashioned way they structured their lives. It means that his climb to the top has gotten longer and harder and the risk of him and his fellow travellers falling off the mountain along the way has increased. Burnout prepandemic was estimated as responsible for the deaths of 2.8 million people a year!! But we still live in the illusion that we can postpone our need for rest and sleep till we retire and Bob has to wait even longer to rest than his grandparents or parents had to.
So, what could we change? How could we improve Bob´s life? His parents are starting to take better care of themselves and are finding new alternative ways to live their lives. But there is a lot we can get better at. Here is what I am hoping to see:
Let´s structure our lives differently. I suggest we skip the three phases of learning, earning and resting and instead let them be important parts of our everyday lives. Yes, we might need to spend more time learning when we are young and inexperienced, use more time working and learning when we are full of energy and more time resting when we have less of it. But we need all three parts every day of our lives to live continuously balanced and purposeful lives.
Let´s be more flexible. Life is not a hill to be climbed through insane striving and it is not all downhill after we have reached the peak. Let´s learn to live like mountain goats. Mountain goats spend their time grazing many valleys, peaks and plateaus, socialising and enjoying the views along the way. If something hinders them reach a chosen destination, or they see a different or better patch of grass on another mountain along the way, they adjust and find another path. Life is full of challenges and the better we are at navigating them with acceptance, the less suffering they will cause us.
Let´s change our perspective from me to us. We are not alone in this world, and we would all benefit from seeing our purpose in life as part of something bigger than our own desires. Let´s work towards a better world instead of fulfilling our own needs for short lived moments of individual pleasures and achievements. Let´s stop dividing ourselves according to age, nationality, gender, race, religion and so on, but focus on how we as a diverse group of people can create a better world.
Let’s teach our kids the life-skills they need to look after themselves and each other.
This is how it could look like.
The mountain has been replaced by a journey towards a common goal of a better world, in which we work together and know how to cope mindfully with the challenges that comes along the way. This will not only set us up for healthy ageing, but also for healthy living.
Now, that is a world I would like for Bob to live and age in. Do you think it is possible? I would love to hear your reflections.
 HALE is measured at birth and gives the average number of years that a person can expect to live in "full health", without disease or disability
 From 2000-2019 Life Expectancy gained 6.6 years and HALE only 5.4 years
 Jennifer Moss, The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It