Class of 2017,
For days, and weeks, and years, you have been imagining this day. You probably imagined a perfect spring afternoon – one of those days that seems to capture everything that is good and right with the world, a day where you are showered with the rewards of your hard work.
Today should be that day for you. Today is your perfect day. You earned it.
But what about tomorrow? What are you going to see when you check your phone tomorrow? More on the atrocities in Syria? More on the nuclear weaponry of a child-dictator in North Korea? The unravelling of Europe? The disintegration of Venezuela? A Twitter storm from the President?
As you think about tomorrow, I’d encourage you to go beyond the headlines. Because something is lurking and building below the surface that will irrevocably transform how you live.
Your world, your tomorrow, is one that for the history of humankind has been inconceivable. And, it is two things, really: First, we now have long lives, to a hundred or more, that you can count on. But, second, as birthrates continue to plummet, globally there are more old than young. All of our institutions – schools, workplaces, healthcare, and more – are built upon assumptions about a population structure that is obsolete.
Twenty years ago, the average Sub-Saharan woman had 7 kids. Today she has 3. India, too, is aging.
In China, your peers will have to care for two parents and four grandparents.
In Singapore, fewer than one baby per couple is born.
Japan will shortly have close to 40% of its population over 55, as is also true in most European countries.
And, each of you, statistically speaking, will live to see three centuries.
When the first class graduated from this university, if someone stood before you and uttered that phase, he or she would have been thought mad. Or perhaps a decent writer of science fiction.
But, it’s your reality.
So what do you do? How do you live a vital, healthy, productive life that stretches across three centuries? And one where the economic and social institutions were built for more young than old?
Think creatively and disruptively not just in the apps you may create, but with the very structure of society. It will be up to your generation to invent the new social contract for 21st century life.
When Jean-Jacques Rousseau theorized in the 18th century how to establish a political community in the face of the problems of commercial society, he was thinking of the world as it existed when we lived, maybe to about 45.
So this prompts us to ask: What does a 21st century social contract look like? How does a world with two billion people over 20th century “retirement age” become fiscally, economically, socially, and politically sustainable?
A start, perhaps:
First. Work? Retirement? And the education to guide the new reality? Many of you probably had parents who built long careers at a single company. They probably have a gold watch and a paper weight to show for it.
It’s cute, isn’t it?
That’s not going to work for you. The career ladder is no longer stable enough to climb. If you’re going to live to 100, and you have to work for six, seven, or even eight decades, you can’t rely on a single industry or set of skills.
Your life will outlast your first job.
You’ll have to become more flexible in how, why, and where you work. The large employers in the world today recognize this, and they’re dying to work with you to find new ways to harness your talents and prepare for the multigenerational workforce of tomorrow. Many now realize that workers in their 50s and 60s can be the most energetic workers on a team and in a company, with years and decades of professional contributions ahead of them.
You also need to make sure that your education can meet yours and society’s needs across a 100-year life. After all, why should learning new subjects and new skills stop abruptly at age 22? The degree you hold today shouldn’t be a certificate of completion, it should be a ticket to decades more educational achievement. We need programs and institutions that facilitate this lifelong learning, so that adults and older adults can continue to increase their knowledge and economic competitiveness.
And just as work, retirement and education changes, so too does our health. The great public health demands of our time already look different, and just as your grandparents made decisions to invest in curing polio or childhood immunization, you must focus on the accelerating health catastrophe that is Alzheimer’s and diseases of aging.
We need to double down on innovative research programs that are striving for a breakthrough, while also implementing policies and models to support those with the disease and their caregivers.
In his nineties, Shimon Peres, former President and Prime Minister of Israel, was as active and stalwart as ever. When asked how he kept going, he said, “You must have more dreams than memories.” Perez, like Michelangelo, who was commissioned in his 80s to start work on what became the Sistine Chapel, lived a very long life. But these two were unique and unusual. For your generation, such longevity – not just in years, but in achievements – will become regular, common. And the related, but separable structure of society – more old than young – is more disruptive than any innovative technology imaginable. So celebrate tonight, but tomorrow, start planning to seize the full potential of your longer lives in a world marked by aging.