By Elizabeth Sloan
Walk into any kindergarten classroom and look around. What’s obvious? Bright faces, squirmy bodies, young minds just embarking on the learning journey. Maybe, in this era, face masks? One thing that’s not visible, but will have more impact on society than anything else? More than half of these five-year-olds will live past the age of 100.
Human lifespan has made a stunning jump in a short time. For most of human history, lifespan hovered around 20 years. It rose to the 30s in the 1800s; today, it’s 78. Because of medical science, technology, better nutrition, and advances in sanitation and public health, the average person alive today can reasonably expect 20 to 30 more years of life than their parents had.
What will people do with that extra time? Are there ways to make those extra years vibrant and meaningful, rather than dysfunctional and unhealthy? And, is society ready for this seismic shift? The answers, according to Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, lie in rethinking old, outdated models, attitudes and assumptions.
This story appeared in the February edition of Climate Magazine.
“The old map of life worked well when we lived 50 years,” said Carstensen in the opening session of the 2021 Century Summit, a December 2021 conference that gathered international thinkers across research, business, culture and government to share new visions for the second half of life. “Get your education early, work like a dog, raise your kids. Things like primary schools and high schools worked when life was relatively short.”
But those institutions and others (think Social Security, Medicare, retirement at age 65) need reimagining. The healthy 100-year life requires strategic thinking and careful investments for every stage along the way, starting in early childhood. “We don’t want to wait until we are already living to 100 regularly,” says Carstensen. “We need to begin to prepare children to be centenarians.”
A Look at the Numbers
To understand what a longer-lived society will feel like, consider these statistics culled from the U.S. Census.
- Today, there are 97,000 centenarians in the United States—a number that could reach 600,000 by 2060.
- By 2030, there will be more Americans over 65 than under 15.
- It will soon become commonplace for children to have four living grandparents. At the turn of the 20th century, only six percent of children did.
- By 2024, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that of the 164 million people in the American workforce, 13 million will be age 65 or older.
- For the average couple of age 65 today, at least one can expect to live to age 93.
Numbers like these often prompt doomsday scenarios. Old age is inevitably unhealthy and isolated. Old people drain the economic system. Over-50 workers can’t learn new things.
But these are myths that need busting, according to the experts. Older adults are among society’s happiest; older workers make important contributions to their workplaces and the economy; with the right planning, later years can be vibrant.
“Older people have been such an untapped resource in our society,” says Martha Deevy, associate director and senior research scholar at the Stanford Center. “What I get excited about is changing the conversation. Rather than: ‘Oh great, my knees are going to hurt that much longer,’ we can start with optimism and potential: ‘I am going to have time to try so many different things!’”
The key is distributing the extra years across all stages of life—not tacking 30 not-so-healthy years on the end. A more flexible approach to life’s ages and stages is critical.
“Kids probably don’t need to be little learners by age five if they are going to live to be a hundred,” says Deevy. Likewise, if a career is going to last 60 years, maybe it’s not required to cram 40-plus hours of work into weeks that are already overwhelmed with family, caregiving and other obligations.
A New Map of Life
Among the offerings of the Century Summit was “A New Map of Life,” a Stanford-generated body of work that rethinks everything from education to industry, to health care and family structures, and from urban design to financial planning.
The map’s key recommendations:
- Reimagine the old sequential model of education-work-retirement. Make it easy for people to flow flexibly in and out of these stages as circumstances demand, and above all, start early. The data are dazzlingly clear: investments in early childhood—education, nutrition, health, social services—dictate how well children will do in all aspects of their lives, and through every stage of life, including old age.
- Prepare for lifelong learning. Finishing education in the early 20s in no way prepares an individual for a career that could last 60 years. Think creatively about how learning can be woven into various stages of life, and where it might come from: not just schools, but employers, community centers, government programs and more.
- Seize the unprecedented opportunities of the new, age-diversified society. The world stands on the cusp of having four or five generations of people alive, in comparable numbers, all at the same time. That’s never happened before, and it represents an incredible opportunity to tap what Carstensen calls the “complementarity of skills.”
“If you look at the 20s and 30s,” Carstensen says, “people have energy, ambition, speed of new learning. If you look in the later years of life, people have volumes of knowledge that they have acquired over the years, emotional stability, and a tendency to become more invested in others; what psychologists call ‘pro-sociality.’ Put the groups together, and it’s kind of extraordinary to daydream about the problems we could solve; the ways we could benefit societies today to improve life at all ages.”
An End to Age Silos
To help people of all ages thrive, society needs to consciously pursue “intergenerational compacts” — interactions that tap age-related skills to foster connectedness and address important social needs.
America is currently one of the most age-segregated societies in the world. It separates children into narrow age bands for learning; it eschews multigenerational living (although early indicators suggest Covid might be changing this); it encourages people, through social programs and financial incentives, to leave the workforce by age 65.
When generations come together—in housing arrangements, workplaces, teaching/mentoring programs, and the like—the benefits are dramatic, reciprocal, and well-documented.
“We know that older people who are engaged in caring for younger generations are three times as likely to be happy as those who are not,” says Summit presenter Trent Stamp, CEO of the Eisner Foundation. “We know that young people who have a caring adult in their lives—even if that person is not related to them—are far more likely to attain success. As we have more and more older people who are viable and vibrant and have things to give back; and we have young people who are struggling, who need access and opportunity and mentoring; not putting them together seems like societal malpractice.”
Stamp and his organization, which promotes intergenerational solutions to society’s problems, is particularly interested in “shared site” programs: for example, putting a preschool literally inside a senior home or senior housing on a college campus. What happens as a result?
“The health benefits for the seniors are measurable,” says Stamp. “Their blood pressure goes down, their cholesterol goes down, they lose weight, their mobility increases. They feel valued. They feel needed.” It’s also true for the kids, he says. “Their test scores skyrocket, just having another caring adult in their lives. “
Increasing numbers of American families are tapping the power of intergenerational compacts through their living choices. Fueled in part by the Covid pandemic, multigenerational living more than quadrupled in the last decade, according to a survey by Generations United, a national organization that promotes intergenerational collaboration. Seventy-two percent of respondents said they will continue the arrangements after the pandemic, citing benefits like family bonds, better physical and mental health, sharing elder and childcare requirements, more flexibility to pursue education or job training.
Even if it’s not found within families or housing, there’s a raft of data to back up one simple conclusion: One of the best things an older person can do to age well is volunteer with children or youth.
Misconceptions abound about the reliability and productivity of older workers. But a growing body of research suggests that multigenerational workforces are more productive, more satisfied with their employers, and less likely to leave the company. Andy Briggs, CEO of the Phoenix Group, the UK’s largest long-term savings and retirement company, tackled some of the false narratives about older workers at the Summit. (The international research he cites mirrors American trends.)
No Learning Lag
“There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that an over-50-year-old is any less able to learn, and develop, and grow skills than an under-50-year-old,” says Briggs. “The over-50-year-old is something like three or four times more likely to still be with you in five years’ time than somebody you hire who is 20 to 25. The over-50-year-old is half as likely to take off sick time as a 20-to-25-year-old.” And yet, over-50s are the least likely to find new jobs or have meaningful career development conversations.
Another compelling reason for companies to seek out, invest in, and retain older workers is simple economics: more than half of all consumer spending is done by people over age 50. “If you’re an organization without any over-50’s in your workplace,” says Briggs, “the ability for your people to get their heads together and represent your customer base, where the spending is, can be very limited.”
So having multiple generations in a workforce is good business. What about from the individual’s point of view? Is working longer a necessary component for aging well?
Most experts say yes—with some caveats. Individuals should consider working longer at something—for the social engagement and, if their circumstances dictate it, the financial security. But that doesn’t mean in the same job, industry, or income level.
“If you can work longer and save more, you really do set yourself up for a better life,” says Briggs. He acknowledges that not all jobs lend themselves to it. It’s less feasible in physically demanding work than so-called knowledge-based jobs. But with flexibility, creativity, and investments in retraining, solutions are there. Briggs cites the example of Jaguar/Land Rover, where older workers were retrained from stitching the hand-sewn leather seats to teaching the next generation of stitchers. Employers, he says, should look for opportunities like this—for their own financial viability.
In addition to investing in early childhood programs, government can do a lot to get citizens ready for the 100-year life. Much of it comes down to looking at social policy through a longevity lens, and funding programs that improve well-being at all ages. Paid family medical leave (the U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t guarantee it) could prevent individuals from leaving the workforce and falling into a retirement-savings abyss if they encountered serious medical issues.
For the one-in-five Americans who are both full-time workers and family caregivers, more robust support programs would likewise keep people in the workforce and prevent lasting damage to retirement savings. Cities, housing, and transit could all be designed with older people in mind—an important consideration as 70 million baby boomers age up.
Programs like Social Security and Medicare, established in 1935 and 1965 respectively and predicated on life expectancies in the 60-to-70-year range, will almost certainly need changes for financial sustainability. Raising retirement age is an incendiary idea politically, but a host of other suggestions have been floated to keep people working longer and these entitlement programs solvent, as well as tap the benefits that older workers can render to both society and themselves.
One is the “paid up” proposal, whose lead proponents are economists John Shoven of Stanford and Robert Clark of North Carolina State. Social Security benefits are currently based on the highest 35 years of earnings. So there’s not much incentive for older people to stay in the workforce—often at a lower income—when they are required to keep paying into Social Security but won’t get any benefit back for those additional low-income years. Instead, says this proposal, once people have reached an agreed upon threshold (say, 40 years) exempt them from payroll taxes, immediately boosting their take-home pay. Conversely, exempting employers from payroll taxes on the “paid up” group would effectively lower their costs for hiring these older workers.
A Medicare Change
Another idea is to make Medicare the primary health care provider at age 65, regardless of work status. This would incentivize companies to hire older workers (absent the requirement to cover their health care) and would cost the government “approximately nothing” according to Shoven, as the costs of providing Medicare would be offset by more work, higher wages, and more income tax at both state and federal levels.
Is Washington ready to make these moves? Yes and no, says Deevy of Stanford.
“People on both sides of the aisle are beginning to think about changes,” she says, “but it’s likely going to happen when the crisis (the financial unsustainability of entitlement programs) is right in front of us. They will move when they see the crevasse they are about to fall into.” Companies will make senior-friendly changes when they see the effects on their bottom lines, she adds—something that is already beginning to happen.
It’s worth noting: Joe Biden ran for—and won—a presidency on a platform that contains many of the social investments longevity experts yearn for. Last year’s American Rescue Plan Act, targeting pandemic relief, had such elements: child tax credits, food and housing assistance, emergency grants for education. Build Back Better, the trillion-dollar infrastructure bill hotly debated in Congress, has even more. (At press time, BBB’s fate was uncertain.)
Living Old, Well
What can an individual do to live not just long, but well? Most experts echo this list: cognitive fitness, physical fitness, and financial security.
Deevy nets it out this way. “The number one thing is to have a reason to get up in the morning,” she says. “Find something that gives you social engagement, meaning and purpose. If you get paid for it, great. If you don’t get paid for it, that’s fine, too.”
The second thing is keep moving. Exercise doesn’t have to be intensive or long, and it’s never too late to start. “There’s evidence that people who never exercised before and then start at age 60 reap benefits,” she says. “The number of chronic conditions diminishes; the number of medications they have to take goes down.”
The third component—financial security—requires planning, saving, maybe a talk with a financial professional. And yes, consider working longer, even if it means a pivot to something new. People don’t necessarily resist the idea of working longer, says Deevy. “What they say is: I want to work more flexibly; I want to work fewer hours; I may want to change industries or professions.” The key is to stay connected to something.
Beyond these, research and practice in the science of longevity suggest some other concrete recommendations for vibrant aging.
- Find ways to be involved with young people—as an employee or volunteer, in a family or neighborhood setting, through a community center, within a housing situation.
- Look into housing arrangements that ward off isolation and provide stimulation, like home-shares and co-housing developments. The Village Movement is a national membership network that helps older adults stay connected and supported in their own homes and communities
- Use technologies that keep people functional and connected. Thanks to a 2017 bill passed in Congress, hearing aids will soon be more widely and cheaply available “over the-counter”—without a medical exam or special fitting—for those with mild to moderate hearing loss. Monitors and biometric sensors continue to drop in price and improve in user-friendliness. Myriad apps connect older people with companions, help them with meds or groceries, support interactions over shared interests, and pair them with young people who seek caregiver jobs or social interaction.
For a topic so often marked by gloom and doom, the picture for long life is actually quite bright. As the old saw goes, aging beats the alternative by a country mile. But beyond that are the seismic shifts society is already beginning to make. Maybe it’s the aging baby boomer effect, but never before in history have so many people been working so hard on the research, policies, laws, leadership, attitudinal shifts and social vision required to deliver not just the extra time, but the extra life. By the time those five-year-olds are staring down the barrel of 100, who knows what tools will be in place?