This article, co-written by 4Gen partner Dominic Endicott appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of strategy+business.

A profound but mostly unrecognized demographic and economic trend is unfolding around the world right now. The average human life span is growing enough that for the first time in recorded history, four generations can routinely expect to be alive at the same time. To be sure, this trend is countered somewhat by the increasingly older ages at which many women give birth; in 2010, the mean age of mothers at the birth of their first child was 25 or higher in most industrialized countries. Even so, with more people living into their late 90s, the 4-Gen society that is taking shape can be expected to last at least one more generation, and probably much longer.

The experience of the last similar transition — the 20th-century shift from a 2-Gen society to a 3-Gen society — suggests that the impact will be immense. In 1900, when the average global human life span was 31, relatively few adults had grandparents who were still alive. At the end of World War II, the average global life span had risen to 48, and its growth accelerated after 1945; in 2019, it is above 70. In industrialized societies, the relationship between adults and their grandparents is now taken for granted.
This transition has been, by many standards, a massive net positive for humanity. Since the end of World War II, even as the global population has increased from 2.3 billion to 7.7 billion, inflation-adjusted per capita income has risen from US$4,000 to $11,000 per year, and GDP has spiked from $9 trillion to more than $100 trillion. Billions of lives have grown richer; new global wars have so far been avoided. And the predominant demographic theme of the past 30 years has been the rise of hundreds of millions of newly middle-class people in China, India, and other emerging societies, and the multitrillion-dollar economic transformation that followed.

Of course, we don’t know whether the 3-Gen transition caused, was caused by, or merely correlated with these benefits; nor do we know for sure whether they will continue. And we can’t overlook the negative elements of the last transition: climate change, suburban sprawl, greater income inequality, the decline of some previously dominant national economies, and the stresses that go with a more interconnected world and a more mechanized culture.
The next transition may involve even greater challenges. There has never been a modern society in which people routinely lived into their 90s. The longevity revolution is putting massive strains on all of our major social systems — employment, retirement, education, healthcare, housing, transportation, and food, as well as the environment. Humanity’s ability to manage this shift over the next 30 years, and the extent to which it increases or decreases well-being and overall quality of life, probably depend on the decisions we make collectively today. And that in turn depends on how well we understand the forces and factors arising from the new 4-Gen world.

You can read the full article here