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Views: We need to reframe our life stages

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Multi-stage life plan needed as people are becoming chronologically older but biologically younger

People are living longer. Singapore has been ranked third in the world for the longest average life expectancy and second in the world for the longest average healthy life expectancy.

Right now, many of us are living a three-stage linear life plan. We are educated and trained for the labour market in our youth; we work in the middle years; and spend the rest of our years in retirement.

Many of us are under the impression that with a longer life, there will be a prolonged period of retirement and so we start worrying about finances and illness. This is not the right course of action to take.

The reality is that people are becoming chronologically older but biologically younger. People are younger for longer and thus the standard chronological measure of age makes less sense.

We need to reframe our life course. Instead of a three-stage life, we have to reconfigure our life plan to a multi-stage life. This concept will have more flexibility and more transitions.

This sort of a life plan might allow people to raise children first and start a career at age 35 to 40 and to change career path at any stage in life.

This variation or other shifts on the traditional trajectories of the life course can offer opportunities to live life fully at all ages and stages, and to contribute to society throughout one's life.

To achieve this, there is an urgent need to create changes in individual and institutional attitude and behaviour.

There also have to be systemic changes at the corporate, government and societal levels to enable them to support the new and personalised life course of individuals and thus reap the dividends of longevity.

One of the unintended consequences of the three-stage life is that it has led to an institutional separation of the young, the middle-aged and the old.

The multi-stage life will reverse this isolation by generations, because age will not coincide with your stage in life.

Let us look at education - this should be lifelong, and this is being encouraged in Singapore.

However, the situation now is that most educational institutions are age-stratified. This creates boundaries between ages and encourages ageism.

Education throughout different ages of life will break down age boundaries and encourage cross-generational blending.

Schools, colleges and universities will have to create spaces where young, middle-aged and older people can acquire knowledge and skills together, and get to know one another enough to build mutual respect and meaningful friendships.

Let us now look at the work arena. Technology and globalisation are disruptive forces, but so is longevity. Older people should be offered the option of working part-time or retraining for other types of work.

The organisation should recognise the value of experience and human capital, and organise the transfer of skills between generations.

The writer, a consultant surgeon, is the founder- president of Wings - Women's Initiative for Ageing Successfully. This is an edited version of an article that appeared in The Business Times yesterday.