Planning for a Centenarian’s Life
Americans have been labeled everything from the Greatest Generation to Generations X, Y, and Z. Are you ready for the Centenarian Generation?
The number of 100-years-olds has roughly doubled over the past two decades to more than 67,000 – mostly women – and the U.S. Census Bureau predicts it will double again by 2030. Just think about the implication of living for a century: retirement at, say, 65 means 35 years of leisure.
This is unappealing to some, unaffordable to many, and it impacts us all.
“We’ve added these extra years of life so fast that culture hasn’t had a chance to catch up,” Laura Carstensen, director of Stanford University’s Center on Longevity, said during a panel discussion at a recent Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles. The best use for a additional 20 or 30 years of life isn’t, she said, “just to make old age longer.”
Granted, the Milken panelists – all privileged and accomplished baby boomers – are removed from the financial and other challenges facing most older Americans. But they have thought deeply about longevity and its consequences.
The following is a summary of their musings on how we might adjust to the coming cultural tilt toward aging:
- Young people need to be more engaged in the issue of increasing U.S. life expectancy, because it will affect Generation Z far more than it has today’s older population. To engage his son’s interest in the topic, Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute’s Center for the Future of Aging, said he introduced the concept of 80-year marriages. “That started a conversation,” he said.
- The convention of committing to a single job or career might have to change as people face many more years in the labor force. But “reinvention” – the buzzword – can be heavy lifting for many older workers. Instead, think of late-life changes as “drawing on midlife experience and devoting it to new ends,” said Marc Freedman, founder of Encore.org, which recognizes older people for their contributions to society. Finding new purpose and a new passion – with or without a paycheck – can inject energy into old age.
- Rather than the current workplace culture that often “discards” seniors as no longer useful, Michael Eisner, Disney’s former chief executive, said it’s to every employer’s benefit to keep them working. Eisner advocates mixing older workers’ practicality and experience with the passion of young adult colleagues.
- Formal education in this country is a one-shot effort completed in childhood and early adulthood. But late-life sabbaticals, volunteering, education, or internships could become a more common way to invigorate too-long employment. “Kids get a gap year after working so hard in high school,” Freedman said, “but what about their parents who’ve been working 60-hour weeks, doing caregiving and raising their kids for 30 years?”
His highly improbable proposal for funding the gap year: allow older workers to tap their Social Security benefits for a single year of retooling. In the end, it could pay off by encouraging people to extend their working – and earning – years.
- Preparation for old age is a lifelong pursuit, said AARP chief executive Jo Ann Jenkins. As the number of healthy older people increases, we will have to “think about aging in a very different way than we have in the past,” she said. The goal is that old age be “something to look forward to, rather than to fear.”
Conversations about aging often turn to health, exercise, or the latest medical innovations – but not lifestyle challenges. “When we’re all running around eating kale,” Irving said, “we have to ask, What are we doing to engage ourselves purposefully?”
To listen to the entire conversation, click on the above video.
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In this summary (and in the full discussion available on the link), there is the implicit assumption that longevity will continue to grow as rapidly as it has so far. But demographers and other specialists disagree with each other that it can do so. A major source of doubt is the rapid increase in obesity (at least in the U.S.). Unless the obesity trend can be reversed, it can hinder the gains in health among the elderly, making post-retirement years less available as an unused source of human capital.
Another oversight is that aging is more rapid in many countries than in the U.S., primarily because of sharp reductions in fertility. And much greater aging is projected in the coming decades, posing severe challenges in finding ways to support retirees.