My film debut! (In a very minor way)
On February 6 a sold-out audience of several hundred assembled at Desautels Hall in the University of Toronto to see the outside-the-Netherlands premiere of Dr Theo Kocken’s wonderful one-hour film – as did another 340 viewers online. It was followed by a superb panel discussion. Let me tell you about the film and the panel discussion first, before I get to the personal excitement of seeing myself … for what, 10 seconds? … on a big screen.
I’ve known and admired Theo for some decades. He’s professor of Risk Management at VU University Amsterdam, founder of the Anglo-Dutch pension investment & risk management firm Cardano, and chairman of the Cardano Development Foundation. He is also an extraordinary professor at NWU University (South Africa).
So, what took this financial economist into the film business? He told us it all resulted from a coincidence. He joined Keith Ambachtsheer’s cycling team to take part in the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation’s “Ride to conquer cancer” from Toronto to Niagara Falls in 2010, and met fellow team member oncologist Dr Rob Buckman. Both Theo and Rob were fans of Monty Python, and Rob said he had done skits with Python’s Terry Jones in his Cambridge University days. Would Theo like an introduction to Terry? Of course! And that led to Theo’s first two documentaries with Terry, “Risky business and the business of risk” and “Boom, bust, boom.”
“Your hundred year life” is Theo’s third film. No Terry Jones this time, but filled with humorous (some hilarious) cartoon sequences from Theo’s co-author Colin Swash. But this isn’t meant to be a funny film. It’s very serious. It’s filled with all kinds of insights, based on facts and anecdotes, including both sad and scary as well as exciting and motivating personal stories from people in many countries, indeed many continents – because the issues are global.
I was so taken with the brilliance of the moment-by-moment content of the film that it was difficult for me to rise above it and ponder what exactly are the insights and messages it provides. I also happily recognized a number of commentators shown in the film whom I know personally – David John, Larry Kotlikoff, Keith Ambachtsheer, Josephine Cumbo – as well as many others I’m aware of. But I made notes (in the darkness) and after some reflection (and helped very much by the panel discussion) here’s what I remember.
Theo uses the phrase “A film about living and living …and living … and living … and living …” You get the idea right away, whether it’s 100 years or any other high number. It’s about the economic, social and health consequences that come from a longer lifespan and falling birthrates.
It’s not preachy and prescriptive, saying “here’s what we have to do.” Instead, it hints at possible solutions by showing what’s already being done around the world. It’s fundamentally a prelude to informed discussion.
One big thing that hit me (I think Theo said this explicitly, later) was that, although longevity is increasing, it’s increasing very gradually, so it isn’t a sudden shock to the world. If it were, then perhaps the world would react and adjust. Instead, we just keep thinking the same way as before, and do nothing to adjust to the change in longevity that has occurred over the decades. We still plan to retire at 65, or even earlier, and don’t realize that, when US Social Security was launched in 1935 with payments commencing at 65, life expectancy at birth was 61, so in fact fewer than half the population was expected to get benefit payments, and those payments probably wouldn’t last long. That same only-a-few-for-a-short-time design in fact started with the world’s first such system, launched in 1889 by Germany’s Otto von Bismarck, with payments commencing at age 70 – and a life expectancy at birth in the 40s (although there’s a website saying it was 72, a number I find impossible to believe: perhaps a typo for 42?).
Today, of course, we hope to collect payments for a big chunk of our lives. And as we approach 65 (or even 60 or 55) society starts to think of us as old. Ageism has taken hold (linking age with all the negative stereotypes) and age discrimination is rampant. All of which makes life less and less satisfying as one ages, and makes the finances of Social Security systems unsustainable, particularly when combined with falling birth rates (because future generations are needed to pay for today’s recipients, as Larry Kotlikoff forcefully explains in the film).
Leaving work at a comparatively young age (relative to life expectancy) has many other negative consequences for society. For example, while youthful generations are filled with energy and enthusiasm, older generations have experience and wisdom and life perspective – but these are often not available when those older generations leave or are forced out of work. Research shows that teams formed with members across the generations are more effective than teams with all members in the same generation. And continuing to work gives life much more meaning and purpose, for those who typically would otherwise be retired: “a new lease on life,” as one expressed it. The added social contact also improves health, and it’s all three aspects of life (financial, health-related and social interaction) that are necessary for a happy life. Japan’s “Silver Centers” are a great example of this – with inspiring interviews of those who show up every day to contribute to their local communities.
After the movie, and just before the panel discussion started, Theo told us that the movie’s themes evolved over time. Old age poverty was the original subject. Then there emerged the notion that I just mentioned: that longevity increases slowly, so we do nothing about it: we don’t help people to live a satisfying post-work life. And that led to investigating how we can improve that later-stage life, with purpose. (In fact Theo was kind enough to mention my own writing on these subjects. More on why I do that, at the end.) His aim is to raise awareness (which he succeeds in, beautifully) rather than to prescribe answers, In fact he said explicitly: “I don’t have the answers – there are lots of views expressed in the film.”
Nevertheless, I’ll repeat the last few sentences from the film’s voiceover, as I found them so compelling a summary that I replayed them, and wished they could have been communicated more forcefully:
“Getting older is what we do. How we get older is always up for grabs. We need to retire retirement. We need to look at the whole idea with fresh eyes, find new ways of working, new ways of living, and pay more attention to our future selves. Think about how we’ll survive financially, live socially and stay physically healthy and mentally fit. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but it’s time to question old-fashioned assumptions about the way humans work and what we’re capable of. As we get older, interacting with others, embracing new challenges, finding fresh purpose – these will be key to helping millions to live an active, fulfilling and happy hundred-year life.”
I’ll mention the panelists by name, because this was one of the best panel discussions in my life:
- Dr Theo Kocken, credentials above;
- Keith Ambachtsheer, Director Emeritus, ICPM, Rotman School of Management;
- Alyssa Brierley, Executive Director, National Institute on Ageing;
- Jen Recknagel, Director of Innovation and Design, University Health Network, OpenLab;
- Dr Samir Sinha, Director of Geriatrics, Sinai Health;
- Lisa Taylor, President, Challenge Factory (on the Future of Work).
(And actually all have multiple extensions to those cited credentials.)
What made it so good was a combination of two things: the obvious excellence and knowledge of the panelists, plus the fact that they represented cognitive diversity – their different backgrounds meant that they came at the same subjects and facts and opinions from different starting points and brought different perspectives to the discussion.
Here are some stray notes I took, as they related the film to a Canadian context. The notes do a huge injustice to the panel, but it’s the best I could do. What they tried to do was to translate the film’s insights into action.
- The film has so many messages that resonate in Canada!
- Research shows that older adults want to remain active citizens, they want to have a sense of meaning and belonging. They want to age in place, with social networks and purpose.
- But they’re considered less important than others. For example, though older adults outnumber children, there are 10 times as many pediatricians in Canada as geriatricians.
- Ageism is a huge problem. “Blind hiring” (where the age is not mentioned in the work application) is effective for both younger and older employees. (Yes, younger workers are also often discriminated against.)
- Baby Boomers who are not retiring are, by remaining in the workforce, changing the workplace more than subsequent generations of workers, because of their numbers.
- Language is important. All surveys of “working age” people count those aged 18-65. By age 67 you qualify only as “dependent.”
- Healthcare, social wellbeing and work are treated as different silos, whereas in real life they’re beautifully connected. (In fact, it’s “total wellbeing” that’s all-important – amen to that, I say!)
- In later life, we need social contact, learning opportunities, cognitive wellness, a sense of belonging and purpose – not just personal physical care, which is how society thinks of the needs of older people.
- Covid helped us learn a lot about networks of mutual support.
- We need to be much tougher on catching examples of ageism in the public sector. Why the public sector? Simply because, as our biggest employer, it’s the obvious place to start.
Two final notes from the panel.
Theo was asked which countries are doing the best job today. His answer: none! Some do a good financial job (with a good pension system), but they become complacent and feel they can retire people early, and then they don’t provide good human support. Take Ghana as a contrasting example: the generations are much better connected, but if you aren’t in work, you’re in deep trouble [about 80% of people are in the informal economy]. In other words, it’s necessary to do the job in (at least) two dimensions, not just financially and not just in social connection. And no country is a good example of doing both well.
And I came across (and loved) an expression I’ve never heard before. Do you know what a NORC is? It’s a “naturally occurring retirement community,” a building or a close community that wasn’t originally built for older adults, but which has become home to a high density (say, at least 30%) of older adults. Once the expression was mentioned, it featured a lot in the panel discussion, with increasing (as I saw it) enthusiasm. NORCs can develop into networks of mutual support. They include younger generations, to the mutual benefit of all generations. NORCs offer the opportunity to deliver care to communities, not just to individuals, and to the possibility of sharing services that would be too expensive for individual residents to employ.
It was clear that, without being conscious of the fact before, a number of us felt that we ourselves lived in a NORC. And gradually the enthusiasm for NORCs expanded to the point where someone suggested that Ontario’s Prince Edward County is, in total, a NORC! And then that Japan is perhaps a NORC! Well, maybe the definition got just a little bit stretched, because of course the definition implies physical closeness. But you get the idea.
Linking this to Theo’s comment, it might be that the simplest place to try to initiate these two-dimensional ideas is not a NORC or a country but something in between, perhaps the work organization. For example, the Dutch Central Bank started a Silver Club within its organization, for coaching, new careers, and so on.
The entire event was arranged jointly by the National Institute on Ageing and KPA Advisory Services. I’m very familiar with KPA. I’ve known Keith Ambachtsheer and his wife Virginia for many decades, and they are good and generous people. For example, they sponsored the launch event for my Happiness book. And in the old days (!) Keith and I were business partners, and we’ve written a book together (Pension Fund Excellence, which still gets cited at conferences 25 years later).
Which leads me to some personal observations.
I loved the fact that all the people in the film were identified not only by name, but by what they do and when they’ll turn 100. Thus I appeared as “Don Ezra, author, 100 in 2044.” A lovely touch!
And my two appearances? I honestly didn’t remember a word I said. (I saw the film again, to verify that my 10 seconds weren’t exactly memorable. So I’m very grateful that somehow I made the cut.) What I did notice when I first suddenly appeared on-screen (and I’m embarrassed to say this) is that, when the interview took place, I still had a touch of hair on the top of my scalp! (Vanity of vanities, all is vanity …) But it also strikes me that hair loss is a bit like longevity: the change is so very gradual that you don’t notice it unless you view it at times that have a noticeable gap between them.
It also reminded me that the interview from which my 10 seconds were extracted took place almost five years ago. At the time I had launched my website and was experimenting with writing about many aspects of retirement. It was a long interview, and again, I’m grateful that a bit of it made the final cut. What I’m also grateful for is that, in the interview, Theo got an idea into my conscious mind. It was right at the end: he asked me if there was one thing I’d do, if I were President for a day. The notion of retirement education as a useful, indeed necessary, introduction to our second life (just as primary education is a necessary and useful prelude to our first life) had never occurred to me explicitly until it became the natural answer to Theo’s question. And then I began to expand and organize my writing into what became Life Two and continues as a multi-aspect blog. So, Theo, my grateful thanks for the Eureka moment that led me to write a book.
I’ll repeat the final words of Theo’s script. “Getting older is what we do. How we get older is always up for grabs. We need to retire retirement. We need to look at the whole idea with fresh eyes, find new ways of working, new ways of living, and pay more attention to our future selves. Think about how we’ll survive financially, live socially and stay physically healthy and mentally fit. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but it’s time to question old-fashioned assumptions about the way humans work and what we’re capable of. As we get older, interacting with others, embracing new challenges, finding fresh purpose – these will be key to helping millions to live an active, fulfilling and happy hundred-year life.”
I have written about retirement planning before and some of that material also relates to topics or issues that are being discussed here. Where relevant I draw on material from three sources: The Retirement Plan Solution (co-authored with Bob Collie and Matt Smith, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009), my foreword to Someday Rich (by Timothy Noonan and Matt Smith, also published by Wiley, 2012), and my occasional column The Art of Investment in the FT Money supplement of The Financial Times, published in the UK. I am grateful to the other authors and to The Financial Times for permission to use the material here.
Don, I love this! Love that you were in the movie and really love Theo’s final quote! Thank you!
Thanks, Cindy. If I find out where you can see the film, or if I get a link to where you can see it online, I’ll let you know.
Don, based on your review, I too would appreciate a link – including the panel discussion, if it was recorded.
I recently saw data on males and females from 38 countries, showing the national retirement age and the average lifespan for each. The data was further broken down between healthy retirement years and what I will call health-dependent retirement years. The data revealed that our healthy retirement years are not progressing as fast as our longevity. Did this come up in the film or the panel discussion ?
If I get a link to the film, I’ll definitely forward/publish it. The panel discussion was recorded, and I agree it would be great to have it included in the link. The discussion didn’t get into what’s called “healthy life expectancy” (see my blog post #76 for a full explanation). I haven’t been following the progression of the relative lengthening of expectancy and healthy life expectancy — what you cite is disturbing; thanks for mentioning it. I’ll try to follow up some time.
I would love to have the link to view the film again. Unfortunately I was travelling for most of the time the link was still available and I was unable to view it again.
I was particularly interested in the statistics on changing demographics and the need for younger people to plan ahead financially if they do not wish to outlive their income. I wanted to share that information with my daughter and son-in-law so they could see the facts about saving now for the future, even if it meant cutting back on discretionary consumerism that seems to prevail in their generation.
I’ll try to get a private link to the film and send it to you. Meanwhile, about saving for the future, perhaps see post #180 for some ideas to persuade them.