by LAURA L CARSTENSEN, PH.D., PROFESSOR OF PSYCHOLOGY AND THE FAIRLEIGH S. DICKINSON JR. PROFESSOR IN PUBLIC POLICY & DIRECTOR, STANFORD CENTER ON LONGEVITY, STANFORD UNIVERSITY
Thirty years were added to the average life expectancy in the 20th century. Yet far too many Americans feel that this extraordinary gift of time is more of a burden than a blessing. Most people are anxious about the prospect of living for a century. Asked about aspirations for living to 100, typical responses are: “I hope I don’t outlive my money” or “I hope I don’t get dementia.” It is time to address these legitimate concerns and get to work building a culture that supports long life.
Had life expectancy increased slowly across centuries, we would have found cures for diseases and found new ways of living. But years were added so fast that there is now a mismatch between the length of the lives we are living and the culture that guides us through life.
The extraordinary ability to benefit from culture is what differentiates humans from other species. Generations are born into worlds prepared by ancestors with vast bodies of scientific and medical knowledge, educational systems, highways, and governments. Refrigeration, electricity, and agricultural technologies are a part of culture as much as the social norms that guide us through life and tell us when to get an education, start families, work, and retire. Indeed, the increase in life expectancy in the last century was born out of culture.
Our newfound longevity demands a serious redesign of culture. We need science to find cures for diseases, like dementia and osteoporosis that were uncommon when lives were short. We need lifestyles that preserve fitness and reduce chronic diseases. We need to limit exposures to air pollution that greatly heighten disease risk in old age. We need innovative solutions to financing retirements because the ones today are unattainable for nearly half of the population.
If we work longer — and we will — we need education to continue far beyond the early 20s so that people can keep pace with rapid changes in knowledge that come ever faster. Social norms premised on nuclear families must be revised to acknowledge a new family structure with four and five generations living at the same time.
Arguably most important is the need to address the cumulative inequities that leave half of the population disabled by the time they reach old age. In an era of century-long lives, systemic disadvantages not only pose age-old moral and ethical issues, but they also threaten entire economies.
Recognizing new risks and solving novel problems is only one part of the challenge. Longer lives present us with an opportunity to redesign the way we live so that we live better from early childhood to old age. Societies top-heavy with older citizens can greatly improve the world for children. Today’s older Americans are well-educated, functionally healthy, and emotionally stable.
My good friend, Marc Freedman, likes to say that older people are the only natural resource in the world that is actually growing. In order to make use of this resource, we must rethink all stages of life, not just old age. Old age alone does not have to last longer; rather, youth and middle age can expand too.
Teens can take breaks from high school while they pursue internships in workplaces that intrigue them. We can build norms about exercise, walking, and (too much) sitting. Let’s make early childhood longer with time to focus on arts, interpersonal skills, and playing outside. Instead of saving ever-larger pots of money for the end of life, we can pool risks in new ways. Generations can share wealth earlier than traditional bequests; we can start savings accounts at birth and allow young adults to work earlier so that compound interest works in their favor.
We can replace the old rigid model of life — education first, then family and work, and finally retirement — with more flexible models interweaving leisure, work, education, and family throughout life with places to stop, rest, change courses and repeat steps along the way. We may work more years, but we can work fewer hours in the week. The first and essential step, however, is to begin to envision what satisfying, engaging, and meaningful century-long lives can look like.
The greatest risk of failure is setting the bar too low.