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Longer, healthier lives will spark a new generational conflict

Last year, Greta Thunberg shot to fame as the poster girl for climate-change activism at the age of just 15. By 16 she had a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. Inspired, children around the world have been skipping classes to demand action on climate change.

People between 45 and 65 rule our societies: the median age of an incoming US senator is 51, the average age of a British member of Parliament is 50, and the average age of a CEO in Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies is 53. There are exceptions, of course—Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is just 35, while Donald Trump is 73. On the whole, however, it is the middle-aged who hold the reins. Younger generations lack the experience and influence needed for the top jobs, while older ones succumb to ill health or simply social pressure to step down. Today we might approach society’s elders for advice or consult them for their wisdom, but it’s the middle-aged who choose whether to act on that advice, who decide how to implement that wisdom.

If medicine can keep us healthy and sharp for longer, though, tomorrow’s 80-year-olds could do the work of today’s 50-year-olds. They could be just as fit, and they’d have extra wisdom and experience to boot. It’s very possible that by the turn of the next century, society’s movers and shakers could be in their 80s, not their 50s.

What happens then? Contemporary views of generational roles will make less sense in a world that relies on the old to run politics, culture, and the economy.

There are risks, of course. If the most important decisions are made by the old, then the interests of the old might edge out those of other age groups. This could exacerbate the sort of intergenerational inequality we already see today. Compared with earlier generations, millennials have less money and more debt. Having each generation hang onto power for longer could make successive generations not only even poorer, but increasingly powerless. We’ll need to change the way political decisions are made to ensure that the interests of all ages are fairly represented. And to make that happen, we’ll need changes at the grassroots level, such as overcoming the taboos that prevent free, frank, and constructive discussion of death, inheritance, and what the old owe the young and vice versa.

What will it be like to be in your 20s and 30s in a society where people live until 100 or more and continue to work into their 80s?

The middle-aged face demotion when their elders show no signs of slowing down—but what about younger people? What will it be like to be in your 20s and 30s in a society where people live until 100 or more and continue to work into their 80s? Today, young people don’t earn as much as the middle-aged, and they have lower status and less influence. They do have youth on their side—a great asset in Western societies where the entertainment and fashion industries are dominated by them, and where they are an important consumer group. But the value of youth itself is likely to be eroded in the future. After all, if tackling ageism will be a necessary part of getting the most out of an aging society, then progress will mean attacking a beauty industry peddling “anti-aging” products, a movie industry focused on telling the stories of young people, and …[ ]

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