Thanks to medical, technological, and health advances in the late 1900s, our lifespans have been lengthened considerably. On average, most adults are living a decade longer than their parents, 2 decades longer than their grandparents and 3 decades longer than their great grandparents. Children born today will live on average to the age of 104. It’s hardly a stretch when centenarians are already one of the fastest-growing generations globally.
In the 1930s when the Social Security Act came into being in the US, the average life expectancy for a man was 58. It was a no-brainer to suggest 65 as the magical year to retire. It was less of a financial burden. Surprisingly, the age of 65 has remained a constant for almost a century despite the changing reality of our longer lives.
The implications of this extended lifespan are numerous and transcend every aspect of life. Ageing well is what most people aspire to but there is no one magical prescription that will work for everybody. What has been proven, however, is that keeping one’s brain working with new learning will contribute to keeping those synapses firing and re-wiring. Unlike the mantra that ”you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, research has shown that there is no best before date for learning something new.
And learning something new will become the new normal for everyone, young and old alike. Consider the information explosion and information half-life. Buckminster Fuller created the “Knowledge Doubling Curve”. Until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II knowledge was doubling every 25 years. In 1982 it was doubling every 12-13 months. Today, According to IBM estimates, human knowledge is doubling every 12 hours.
Although information itself is growing exponentially, “the half-life” of knowledge (or facts) is diminishing as fast. The half-life of facts is defined as “the amount of time that has to elapse before half of the knowledge or facts in a particular area is superseded or shown to be untrue.” Many people assume that whatever they learned in school remains true for decades but this has never been less true
According to some the half-life of skills is also diminishing quickly, with some skills having only an 18-month window. Knowledge and skills now have such a short shelf-life, the need for life-long learning has never been greater. With the speed of change proceeding from century to decades to hours, it is obvious that everyone has to also invest in skills retraining to remain up to speed over a lifetime.
As people live and work longer, norms about what older adults want to do, can do, and should do have shifted. Age is no longer a reliable indicator of traditional life milestones, like marriage, or the birth of children. Thirty years were added to average life expectancy in the 20th century. Life is longer but neither culture nor education have kept up. Life-long learning will be more important than ever, as will Long Life Learning.