The ideal extended lifespan, from a young designer’s point of view
Ed Whitlock is 85 years old. As I researched this article, he beat the world record marathon time for his age group by almost fourty minutes . Once he retired, he had time on his hands and got serious again . The reason I have introduced Ed is not only because I, strangely enough, also jog past a graveyard every day. It is because whilst passing the graves and tombstones, the future of ageing is often on my mind.
Stories like Ed’s can often seem like a desperate attempt to show the rosy side of age, when in fact many of us still consider it a process of deterioration and dependency . The crisis narrative we hear constantly is very convincing; in less than 35 years nearly 50 countries will be super-aged  and we will face immense pressures on healthcare, the economy and the environment. The fact that worldwide, the number of dementia sufferers is estimated to double by 2036 and that age-related disease is responsible for two thirds of all deaths  doesn’t exactly encourage optimism about growing old.
However, within all this doom and gloom I continue to have, and advocate, a positive outlook. People have probably heard me say that I want to live forever (or at least be cryogenically preserved until it’s possible!). It excites me that people born today could live healthily to 120 and beyond  or that we could live on as digital beings by as soon as 2045 .
How would my path in life (and as a designer) change if I had an extra 30 years? There is no question that with longer lives, we will all have to have a purpose for longer- but this should not be seen as a negative, and should not only mean spending more time in traditional employment. I believe a flexible approach, where we can switch between different modes of contribution as we lead our cyclic rather than linear lives is needed. I have never ‘just’ wanted to be a designer, so let me share my ideal scenario:
I would still expect to land my first design job soon after I graduate, at company A. The elderly will no longer be extreme users (they are just as healthy and able as everyone else) and with more flexible lives they can contribute more, in different ways. I would exploit this new availability of participants and engage them in the design process, making them feel valued, gain insights into a market which already holds more than 70 percent of disposable income , and naturally follow a more human centred design approach.
Eventually a project topic will absorb me so much that I will want to pursue it further, on a more focused, academic level. Since I am in the age of learning workers  company A appreciates that I need to acquire new abilities as I move along in my career, keeping my skills both relevant and unique  in an ever more competitive culture. They organize a learning contract, which states that I will get free education in return for being available to them as a subject expert for a specified length of time. I will thus have the flexibility and resources to be a designer, as well as, say, a nutritionist, and maybe even a policy maker later on.
Once I have gained my second degree, I return to company A for a few more years of full time work before I decide to leave the office. It has been recognized that the traditional concept of retirement does not make sense in a world where people need and want to contribute for longer  and prefer to frequently move from one job to the next . And so, I swap over from being an in-house designer to being a kind of consultant, where I am required to be available to company A on a negotiated project or user-testing basis, earning money for each session.
After a few years, I feel the urge to return to full time work (not as a designer) and find a great opportunity at company B, where I stay for a while. I feel I can never know enough and want to learn more again. This time however, I do not plan to go back to Company B afterwards, and enroll in a two-way course where I can learn for free but must teach something in return.
I could then remain a consultant to both companies in completely different industries, bringing in my asset of age and the benefits of intergenerational teams. But living in a verticalised society (more generations living simultaneously) where there is the need for people to look after each other , I instead enroll in training so that I can provide basic care for someone. This is recognized and appreciated as a significant full time activity, and paid well.
Once I myself, at around 90 years, feel that I need to turn it down a notch, I get involved in some volunteering, which I very much enjoyed during my student years. I am seen as a “productive element in the moral and social economy” as I enter my civic (rather than leisure) retirement . Simultaneously, my social needs are satisfied which could easily be neglected in my more healthy, independent life.
Any of these key stages could be re-shuffled, layered and repeated in different ways. There may even be a set amount of ‘contribution hours’ that I need to fulfil but can manage as I like . The fact is that having a long healthspan and having a purpose in life form a positive feedback loop- they reinforce each other. Engaging in meaningful and purposeful activities promotes cognitive health in old age and influences our happiness and motivation for participation . Although this picture is a very personal one, we will all, in any case, need a reason to get out of bed in the morning if we are to enjoy our extended lives. This scenario is one of many that would motivate me, both as a millennial with a long life ahead, and a designer (for now). We should not be discouraged when faced with the daunting reality of an ageing population. I see it as a huge opportunity to completely rethink society, and reframe what it means to contribute and be ‘old’. So what would you want your 120 year life to look like?
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