It’s one of the charming paradoxes of life here in Geezerville that living beyond your expected lifespan isn’t necessarily something worth celebrating. Any number of afflictions can turn your golden years into a nightmare of doctor appointments, hospital stays, and nursing-home confinement. But even those of us fortunate enough to remain hale and hearty into our 80s and 90s operate in a social system designed mostly for folks who are courteous enough to pass away on schedule.
When my father was born in 1919, government actuaries suggested he could expect to live for 53 years. When I showed up, 32 years later, expected lifespan had been extended to the age of 65. My grandson can look forward to 76 birthdays, according to the latest data. These are all just averages, of course, (Dad made it to 60; I’m still kicking at 68), but it describes a reality that demands a “major redesign of life,” says Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity.
“Thirty years were added to average life expectancy in the 20th century, and rather than imagine the scores of ways we could use these years to improve quality of life, we tacked them all on at the end,” Carstensen writes in the Washington Post. “Only old age got longer.”
And the prospect of joining America’s burgeoning population of centenarians now inspires dire concerns about financial solvency and cognitive endurance rather than dreamy visions of Caribbean cruises and recreational reading. The response, Carstensen argues, requires rethinking everything from workplace culture and educational expectations to healthcare systems and retirement strategies.
“Retirements that span four decades are unattainable for most individuals and governments,” she notes. “Education that ends in the early 20s is ill-suited for longer working lives; and social norms that dictate intergenerational responsibilities between parents and young children fail to address families that include four or five living generations.”
Carstensen convened an eclectic panel of experts last year to ruminate on the topic. The somewhat lofty initiative that resulted, “The New Map of Life,” seeks to create a less rigid societal path from birth to death, one that expands all stages of life — not just the period spent collecting social-security checks. Among the more intriguing recommendations are:
- On the education front, children should be taught to think creatively, while finding joy in “unlearning and relearning.” High schools should encourage teens to take time away from school to gain work experience through internships. Lifelong learning should become the norm, rather than the exception.
- We’d all work beyond the current retirement age, but companies should offer shorter workweeks and flexible schedules. Our career paths might also feature periods of short-term “retirement” designed to recharge our aging batteries before diving back into the labor force.
- Instead of banking dough for our golden years, we should spread the wealth among our heirs by investing money in their names at birth. Companies should be allowed to employ young adults at an earlier age, so they can build the savings they need to create more flexibility in their later years.
“Longer lives present us with an opportunity to redesign the way we live,” Carstensen notes. “The greatest risk of failure is setting the bar too low.”
I certainly wouldn’t accuse Carstensen and her crew of setting a low bar, and I suppose there’s some value in this sort of thought experiment, but life requires that we temper our expectations and adapt to conditions we don’t control. I long ago realized that a conventional retirement was going to be well beyond my means, so I’ll get up tomorrow morning and happily pedal my bike to the office. Besides, I’ve already outlived my projected lifespan. Every day is a bonus, even if it’s a workday.