Education, entrepreneurship and biological age: An interview with Andrew Scott

In part two of our interview with Professor Andrew Scott from London Business School, we look at how policy will shift to take account of people living for longer and how service providers will respond.

The over 70s have paid a high price in the COVID-19 pandemic, but we know chronological age is not necessarily a reliable indicator of health. What do we need to do differently to put more emphasis on biological age?

A new social narrative around aging is required. We are confused about the process of aging, and that confusion reveals itself in many ways. Some of it is based on an undue reliance on chronological age.

We are aging better now, so you could say 70 is the new 60. I prefer to think of 70 as just being the new 70. We have seen some of the debates about intervening to save the life of a 70-year old, without people understanding just how much life people might have left.

Secondly, age is malleable. The relationship between chronological age and biological age can be influenced. Of course, people without co-morbidities have a younger biological age than those who do. And that becomes an important part of aging. The good news is that these things have started to come out into the debate; the notion that everyone over 65 is old and the same has been blown apart.

The notion that everyone over 65 is old and the same has been blown apart

So much of the narrative has been about an aging society. What we should really be doing is turning it around and looking at it from an individual’s perspective. That might mean saying: “I’ve got a lot more time ahead of me.” Everyone is living longer; no matter what age you are, you have more time.

In 1920, a 20-year old in the UK had a 50 per cent chance of reaching 70. (Roughly when the great influenza pandemic took place.) Today, it’s 90 per cent. For most of British history, the young did not become old. There was a clash between the young and the old.

But now, the key thing is that if you are young, you are probably going to get old. That must change the way you think about COVID-19, because if you are 20, you are going to be very interested in how 70-year olds are looked after. That 20-year old today is likely to have three, if not four, surviving grandparents, which they would not have had 100 years ago.

The pandemic has been horrible, it has ruthlessly targeted the old. On the other hand, it has also forced society to reveal how much it values older people. It has started to change the narrative.

Might a better understanding of biological age help us overcome ageism in the workplace?

Over the last ten years in the OECD, 79 per cent of employment growth has come from people aged over 55.1 That’s stunning.

There is clearly ageism in the workplace; however, people have been working longer. We have a setback now, because the increase in employment in people aged over 55 has been against a very tight labour market and low unemployment.

People need to work longer because of the impact on savings, but the ability to do so has decreased

Now we have higher unemployment. I think we will see more older workers being laid off, because that tends to be where a start is made, and they are going to find it difficult to get a job. That’s going to be a big problem; people need to work longer because of the impact on savings, but the ability to do so has decreased.

One of the key things in The New Long Life is how to maintain your productivity for longer. How do I make sure that I do not outlive my assets or skills? How do we keep people over 50 working? I foresee a big increase in the over 50s trying to learn digital skills, as well as learning other skills digitally, to try to keep their jobs in the face of a tough labour market.

Many of those over 50 might be unable to get a job, so find themselves getting a job in the gig economy or starting their own firms. You may see a lot of business opportunities in that space; helping older workers get a job, to be more productive or learn new skills, because they are going to find the formal labour market tough.

Could we see more entrepreneurship in later life?

We could. An interesting example is the Encore Fellows scheme in the US, which is being brought to the UK. This is almost about a three-and-a-half stage life: “I’ve had my career, money is ok, I just need to be active, and I want to contribute to society.”

COVID-19 could lead to a lot of people aged 50-plus, who thought they could keep working until 60 or 65, now finding they can’t. Financially that is very hard.

COVID-19 could impact those aged 50-plus who think they have got another ten years of work to come but find out they have not

I worry about the impact of COVID-19 on two groups. Firstly, those entering the labour market who will not get a job, and we know that if they do not, the effects will last throughout their careers and lives. Then, there are those aged 50-plus, who think they have got another ten years of work to come but find out they have not. That will have a large permanent effect on their wealth.

This time around, quite wealthy people (middle income and above), who thought their assets and financial planning were fine, could receive a big knock. COVID-19 is like a mini-rehearsal for that. Can you survive six months without earning with the assets you have in the bank? If you lose your job because of AI or robotics in the next four or five years, that’s also going to have a similar effect. How do you build up your assets again? And, of course, your assets are not just financial.

How much will education systems need to change to adapt to the multi-stage life?

The change will be profound. For an individual, we need to think of education like a continuing activity, not something happening in the past. If I asked you how healthy you are, would you say: “Well, I ran a marathon thirty years ago.” You wouldn’t think that was answering the question.

If someone asks, “Tell me about your education”, and you say, “I did a degree thirty years ago…”, for some reason, we accept that as an answer. There is a need to constantly invest and maintain, and that is at the heart of the longevity agenda.

Many people argue we have always been in a race with technology. If your education can keep ahead of technology, you are doing fine. But if technology gets ahead, you have a problem, which is why in the Industrial Revolution we increased everyone’s education to the ages of 12, 14, 16 and now 18.  But technology is about to race ahead again.

We have to move towards lifelong learning, and that has lots of challenges and implications

If we are going to increase education, it surely cannot all come at the beginning of one’s life. It is going to have to come throughout life; hence the narrative about running a marathon. We have to move towards lifelong learning, and that has lots of challenges and implications.  

You need to learn to learn at the beginning, and you also need to learn to unlearn, which is a hard thing. It also means changes for institutions like universities. Will you ever graduate? If you have lifelong learning, what does the word graduate actually mean?

There will be a whole growth of new education providers. YouTube and Apple will want to be part of it. There will be upskilling and re-skilling. Education will be key.

The trouble is we are not really investing much in adult education. The people who currently get involved in adult education tend to be those that already have the most education. This is quite profound. Governments will have to try to encourage people to spend money on education through tax incentives and the like. But we cannot equip everyone to upskill and reskill, so we will also need governments creating and providing jobs for the skills people already have. That is about small-scale entrepreneurship rather than building big tech giants.

That could be quite positive, particularly post-COVID-19, where people working in the service sector may be interested in starting up small firms that are crucial for local communities as well.

What about opportunities for distance learning?

Clearly, a number of colleges and universities were behind in adapting to technology, and they have had to leap forward. It is interesting just in three months how things have evolved. At the beginning of the pandemic, you could have a plain webinar. Now you must have more bells and whistles! What we are noticing is the strengths and weaknesses of distance learning. We have known for a long while that it is great if you have a room in your house where there are no distractions and you have good broadband, somewhere you can sit and concentrate. But if you don’t have those things, it is not going to work. Of course, that raises the issue of inequality again.

Technology creates new opportunities, there is a great quote in our book (not from us) that says: “Anyone who thinks technology can solve the problems of education does not understand technology and does not understand education.” Clearly technology needs to add something to the process.

To find out how to do something, people can do a search online and find a video somewhere. That’s great, but education is a lot more than that. Clearly, we need to change our educational model.

The way I see it, when information and knowledge become freely available, which it is, merely providing information may carry less value. That is what a lot of our education system is built on.

When people learn things outside, the classroom becomes something more interactive

When people learn things outside, the classroom becomes something more interactive. It is about formulating an argument, testing a hypothesis, listening to others, forming a consensus. These are valuable skills, but they are different to just absorbing information. That is where technology will have its biggest impact.

I remember having an argument with one of my sons before he did his history GCSE. It was on the Second World War, and he did not know the start date the day before the exam. He said: “I don’t need to know.” I thought that was preposterous! But he is never going to be in a situation where he does not have a device to help him recall that. For him, it was less about facts and more about looking at different sources and working out from those what was happening, why they were saying what they were, and what they were trying to achieve.

That was an interesting moment for me, because a lot of education is about providing information. Perhaps that is less important now.

What are the intergenerational implications of The New Long Life?

As with age, we are a little bit confused with generations. A lot of the conflict is based on the idea there is ‘young’ and there is ‘old’, and they are involved in a zero-sum game. But that’s not the case because the young become old. Ageism is strange as you are showing a form of discrimination against your future self.

Longevity and technology are changing how we need to structure our lives

The philosophy of The New Long Life is that longevity and technology are changing how we need to structure our lives. The younger you are, the bigger the changes that are necessary and the more the current system does not work for you.

There is a real problem for younger people, because all the things they saw their grandparents and possibly their parents get – pension, house, financial independence – are not going to happen until much later.

This creates a tension. The old map of life does not work for anyone, but it is particularly bad for the young. However, every one of every age needs to work on this new map of life; people in their 50s are finding the labour market does not work for them in the way it should. If you look at the tragedies unfolding in care homes, it’s clear our existing institutions do not support the length of life of old people, and the young have their own problems.

The labels – baby boomer, gen X and so on – are unhelpful because they are a demographic form of astrology. The notion your character is somehow defined by the date you were born is clearly wrong. There are huge differences among millennials, just as there are among baby boomers. But what everyone is finding is that the thing the parents and grandparents did no longer works for them. There is a commonality these labels obfuscate; we need to move away from them.

How do we measure progress towards ‘flourishing’, something you touch on in the book?

We focus a lot on the number of old people, but to me the real change is to discover age is malleable. We can alter how we age. There are limits to that, and it is not totally under our control, but there is some extraordinary science showing we can improve how we age quite dramatically, through getting rid of arthritis and conditions like that.

If you can slow down ageing then the gains from that are huge

We have a disease-based model of care, one that treats cardiovascular problems, cancer problems and so on. But if you look at the dominant diseases now, they all tend to increase with age. So, if you can slow down ageing, which we have done in worms and dogs and all sorts of other things, then the gains from that are huge.

That sounds like science fiction, but I expect something to come from this in the future. We also know having a sense of purpose, community relationships, not eating and drinking too much all help. How do we structure society to ensure these things happen?

There is a fascinating experiment in Singapore, in a place called Queenstown, with a population of around 100,000 people of all ages. Their goal is to design truly age-friendly ways of living. And I don’t just mean being nice to old people, I mean making it easier to age. That’s fundamental.

Then the question becomes: how do we measure that? Although I am a macroeconomist, I think we need to start targeting healthy life expectancy alongside measures like GDP. If healthy life expectancy was targeted, inequality would show up even more starkly.

What type of metrics might be used?

There are self-reported metrics, but in general people often say they are not good! There are all sorts of biases. The other thing you can do is construct measures based on co-morbidity data – how many people have arthritis; how many have diabetes, and so on. There is also a measure based on tasks – can you get out of bed, put your socks on, cook for yourself, that sort of thing.

Within ten years there will be whole new insights into how you measure healthy life expectancy

Further down the road, we are likely to see more indicators of biological age emerge. You can do this already; one takes a picture and tries to assess what your biological age is. I’m terrified of doing that one. Or you can get a genetic test that will give your biological age. The big test is for biomarkers of aging. You have an epigenetic clock, which they can measure quite reliably now. I do think within ten years there will be whole new insights into how you measure healthy life expectancy.

In my view, the real challenge is how we boost healthy life expectancy, rather than how we measure it. All measurements are imperfect and distortionary, but the NHS has got an awful lot of data. It is one of the great advantages of the NHS. We can come up with plausible measures.

The bigger challenge is that we know healthy eating, sense of purpose, community involvement and so forth really matter for how you age, so how do we go about creating that? How do we tackle them? It’s not about just giving someone a pill. It’s about something much more profound in how we live and work and interact with one another.

What do companies need to do to ensure that they are growing a productive workforce?

This is going to be key. Many companies are far behind; they are still thinking in terms of a three-stage life. The conversation is starting to shift, however; companies are now talking about essential workers, as opposed to skilled workers. We are seeing a narrative begin to develop that is downplaying the market and focusing on broader social issues. Firms’ reputations will be based on more than just market or financial performance.

AI should be used to augment our productivity and make us better at our jobs

If firms drive the agenda around AI and aging, the outcome will be terrible. It has to be driven by people. AI should be used to augment our productivity and make us better at our jobs, as well as make our jobs more interesting, rather than just automating and displacing jobs.

In terms of this longer working career, there are all sorts of issues. One is dropping ageist assumptions. Part of this is the idea that people at 50 do not want to work or cannot learn new skills, which is just not true. Instead, we need to re-fashion retirement so that people have options. That should help people carry on working after 65, as more and more firms are realising.

There is also the notion of multiple recruitment points. We tend to focus on the 18-21 category, but in a multi-stage career, people may want to come into a business in their 30s, 40s or at 50 or even 60. And they will be bringing in skills that will be useful. Having multiple recruitment spots is key.

Creating the flexibility to ramp up and down work commitments is also important. Over longer careers, sometimes you will want to work hard for money; at other times you might be thinking less about your career and more about being a carer. Or it may be that you need to take some time to look after your health or learn new skills.

Firms used to have a corporate pension, which provided a defined benefit right at the end, and that was a recruitment retention tool. You could bring someone in on a lower salary, because they would pay you more later when you retire.

That ability to ramp up and down work commitments will become increasingly important

We dropped that, because people are living for so long and firms cannot take the risk. But there are all sorts of things people need to worry about in a multi-stage life – family, relationships, health, educations, skills. That ability to ramp up and down will become increasingly important.

There is a whole package of things firms can do; the question is why should they? One answer is based on how they will be judged; this will be more multi-dimensional. Two, as the consumer gets older, it will be useful to have more older workers. Also, we know agile and diverse teams tend to lead to better performance, and everything I have described is about agility and diversity. There are a lot of synergies, but clearly not every firm will make the changes because motivation will be different in different industries.

Part one of our interview with Professor Scott can be found here.

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