In Box

Geriatric World

Prepare for the invasion of the centenarians.  

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

Death and taxes may be guaranteed, but what happens to an economy when the hereafter becomes a much more distant prospect? Western countries are about to find out. More than half the babies born since 2000 in France, Germany, Italy, Britain, Canada, Japan, and the United States will live past 100, according to a recent study in The Lancet, the British medical journal, charting the astronomical increase in life expectancy experienced since 1840 in developed countries. By midcentury there will be nearly 6 million people over 100 in the world, compared with just 340,000 today, according to the U.S. National Institute on Aging.

The social and economic consequences of a centenarian world are likely to be monumental. One challenge, of course, will be medical costs. Just because people are living longer doesn’t mean they’re staying healthy as they age, and the price tag just for basic elderly care will be massive. But the more profound change might be in how societies think about work and careers. "The 20th century was a century of redistribution of income," the authors write. "The 21st century could be a century of redistribution of work."

Raising the retirement age will be a necessary first step, the researchers suggest. This carries some risks, not least of which is what the report’s lead author, Kaare Christensen of the Danish Aging Research Center, calls the "Prince Charles problem." Just as Charles has spent a lifetime as king-in-waiting behind his now-octogenarian mother, Christensen foresees a bottleneck of older workers preventing younger employees from advancing until their own golden years. One solution is to change the way careers are structured over time, by creating part-time, semiretired positions for seniors and perhaps even allowing workers to put in fewer hours during the years when they’re raising children. "Most people have an enormous amount of work between age 20 and 40," Christensen says. "Why not postpone it until you’re older and the kids don’t want to see you anyway?"

The full implications of a developed world filled with 100-year-olds are unfathomable. Then again, we have our own long lifetimes to figure it out.

Death and taxes may be guaranteed, but what happens to an economy when the hereafter becomes a much more distant prospect? Western countries are about to find out. More than half the babies born since 2000 in France, Germany, Italy, Britain, Canada, Japan, and the United States will live past 100, according to a recent study in The Lancet, the British medical journal, charting the astronomical increase in life expectancy experienced since 1840 in developed countries. By midcentury there will be nearly 6 million people over 100 in the world, compared with just 340,000 today, according to the U.S. National Institute on Aging.

The social and economic consequences of a centenarian world are likely to be monumental. One challenge, of course, will be medical costs. Just because people are living longer doesn’t mean they’re staying healthy as they age, and the price tag just for basic elderly care will be massive. But the more profound change might be in how societies think about work and careers. "The 20th century was a century of redistribution of income," the authors write. "The 21st century could be a century of redistribution of work."

Raising the retirement age will be a necessary first step, the researchers suggest. This carries some risks, not least of which is what the report’s lead author, Kaare Christensen of the Danish Aging Research Center, calls the "Prince Charles problem." Just as Charles has spent a lifetime as king-in-waiting behind his now-octogenarian mother, Christensen foresees a bottleneck of older workers preventing younger employees from advancing until their own golden years. One solution is to change the way careers are structured over time, by creating part-time, semiretired positions for seniors and perhaps even allowing workers to put in fewer hours during the years when they’re raising children. "Most people have an enormous amount of work between age 20 and 40," Christensen says. "Why not postpone it until you’re older and the kids don’t want to see you anyway?"

The full implications of a developed world filled with 100-year-olds are unfathomable. Then again, we have our own long lifetimes to figure it out.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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