Living to 100, and enjoying it

WHEN my youngest son George was 11 years old, he sat my wife Judith and I down one day and asked if he could take a gap year from school.

He had been playing tennis for a while, and wanted to enrol at the tennis academy to fully immerse himself in the sport.

What he didn't expect was that we would agree to his request. When I related this piece of news to family and friends, they, too, were puzzled by our decision.

After all, taking time off from school at the young age of 11 deviates from the typical education journey and is almost unheard of.

For us, the reason to accept his decision so readily was really quite simple: if there is something our son is passionate about, he should pursue it. There is no need to rush through life - especially when you have potentially 90 more years ahead of you.

Taking a 100-year view to life

Indeed, thanks to advances in medical technology and a better overall quality of life, people are living much longer than they used to.

In Singapore, the life expectancy rate was 83.1 years in 2017, with the number of centenarians having multiplied from 50 in 1990 to 1,100 in 2015. These numbers are only set to rise.

Unfortunately, this is perceived as good news by only a handful of Singaporeans as many are in fact afraid of living up to 100 years old.

More than half, or 55 per cent, of those polled in our "Ready for 100" survey last year said they are not ready to live to 100, citing financial and health concerns. Only 29 per cent aspire to live to that age.

But living to 100 does not have to be an intimidating or negative experience. The key to living well for longer lies in our mindsets: they have to change.

When planning for a life that is likely to span a century and beyond, we will have to break out of the traditional one-track three-stage life model of school, work, and retirement.

Instead, we will need to embrace the possibilities of a multi-stage life, and teach our children to do the same. This means being able to take breaks in between school or work to learn new things, pursue passions, and rejuvenate ourselves.

We will also need to look at life through a long-focus lens. With more time on our hands, we will need to learn how to live our longer lifespan to the fullest, and enjoy it.

Retiring the fears of living to old age

For many, the idea of living to 100 is understandably daunting. The elderly commonly face issues on many fronts, from frailty and ill health to a loss of income.

While it is true that the physical body deteriorates over time, more evidence is emerging to show that advanced medical science can keep people healthier for longer.

Taking proactive and preventive steps to manage one's health, such as going for regular health screenings or using digital health tools, can also help people live longer years in good health.

In fact, today, there is an increasing number of people leading fulfilling lives into their 80s and 90s - in good health.

Take 87-year-old Singaporean Kor Hong Fatt. After he suffered a heart attack at age 70, he took up running as a sport. He has since run 23 marathons in several countries.

70, he took up running as a sport. He has since run 23 marathons in several countries. Japan's Masako Wakamiya, 83, took up coding in her 80s. She then developed an app for the iPhone that has been downloaded more than 40,000 times.

But the hard truth is that good health can be easily undone if one still has to worry about money in old age.

While many Singaporeans are good savers and have strong safety nets in the Central Provident Fund and insurance, they would still not have sufficient savings to meet their needs up till the age of 100.

Having an income remains a critical part of how Singaporeans expect to support themselves in their golden years. More than half of the 1,214 respondents in our survey expect to rely on their salary to support themselves after reaching the statutory retirement age of 62 years.

If all Singaporeans were to stop work at 62, they would be looking at nearly 40 years of retirement on the basis that they live to 100.

Such a long retirement period may pose financial challenges if one outlives his or her savings, not to mention health and social problems triggered by a prolonged period of inactivity.

What Singaporeans need is having an opportunity to extend their careers and continue generating income so they can financially support themselves better.

The need for longer careers is something the Singapore government recognises, given the nation's fast greying population. It raised the re-employment age from 65 to 67 in 2017.

Other countries such as Japan and Switzerland, ranked 1st and 2nd in the world respectively in terms of average life expectancy, are similarly encouraging their citizens to continue working for longer, or what is known as "active ageing".

Japan wants to pave the way for workers to stay employed up till the age of 70, while Switzerland is considering raising the retirement age of women from 64 to 65 to match that of men.

Businesses can lead the charge

While governments around the world are addressing the challenges of longevity, companies must also play their part to shift perceptions about ageing and retirement.

Last October, Prudential Singapore became the first employer in the financial services industry to remove the retirement age completely so that its employees can work with the company for as long as they continue to perform. If they are holding on to the same job, they will continue to receive the same pay and benefits.

We see the value of our people who have expertise and experience that cannot be easily replaced. And if they have the passion, energy and drive to continue working, we see no reason why they shouldn't.

For us, this marks an important move. We get to keep the talent that we need, and our employees get greater ownership over the lives they want to lead.

To be sure, for businesses, extending or removing the retirement age is not without its challenges.

With older workers around for a longer time, younger employees may face the risk of being side-lined when it comes to advancement opportunities. Firms could then find it difficult to retain the younger employees and rejuvenate their workforce.

One way to deal with this is to focus on rewarding employees based on their contributions to the company, regardless of age and tenure. Companies can also do more to support employees seeking a career change.

For instance, at Prudential, we have an internal mobility programme that aims to support employees in building new skills and forging new careers. We added a Career Switch Programme in 2018, which allows employees to work full-time at various social service organisations for a year to gain new experiences and skillsets while still drawing their regular salaries from Prudential.

By aligning workplace policies with rising longevity, companies can help Singaporeans extend their productive years so they no longer have to look at ageing with trepidation.

With more of life to enjoy, the key here is to prepare well for it - be it with our lifestyles, financial habits or work practices

Taking better care of our health, saving for retirement, and being open to learning and new work opportunities can make living to 100 a very positive experience.

Wilf Blackburn, CEO of Prudential Singapore