The Twentieth Century gave us quite a gift: an average of 30 more years of life then people had in the previous century. What to do with all those extra years of living? In A Long Bright Future, Laura Carstensen, the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, has envisioned a new approach to life, one that allows us to put to best use the extra years we have gained. She calls for nothing less than a major re-envisioning of our life cycle, one that allows for more flexibility and leisure throughout our younger years and a more active, productive golden age.
By using Carstensen’s framework of four basic principles—envision, design, diversify and invest—we can prepare for, and take advantage of, our very long lives. What once was a sprint will now be a marathon. We need to completely transform our lifetime work cycle to incorporate our bonus years throughout our lives. This includes how we handle Social Security, Medicare and our 401k. It also means that we need to completely transform our lifetime work cycle to incorporate our bonus years throughout our lives, possibly including sabbaticals, shorter work weeks, more flexible working hours, or longer vacations that employees would actually be encouraged to take.
As our lives lengthen, we must examine our beliefs about aging. Carstensen debunks five myths that cloud our ideas about what our later lives should look like:
• The “Misery Myth” that older people are sad and lonely
• The DNA Is Destiny Myth” that your whole fate is foretold in your genes
• The “Work Hard, Retire Harder Myth” that we should rush to exit the workforce
• The “Scarcity Myth” that older people are a drain on the world’s resources
• The “We Age Along Myth” that how we fare in old age is entirely an individual matter, and not a function of society
Carstensen says, “On average, people nowadays who make it to 65 can expect to live another eighteen years. People who can work—and would enjoy doing so—are nevertheless stepping aside at sixty-five because it’s the social norm to do so. We are losing an incredible amount of skill and experience simply because of this outdated standard.”
The social aspects of longevity shouldn’t be ignored, Nobody wants to die alone, but nobody really want to live alone either. To ensure that we have large, deep support systems throughout our lives, Carstensen advocates fostering more connections across generations—something that should benefit from the fact that, increasingly, more generations of families will be alive at the same time.
Overall, A Long Bright Future is one of the best tools that we have to decipher the ups and downs of living beyond what our ancestors did. Everyone has a different path in life and we all need each other to travel down it. Challenge “old age” as long as possible but be smart about how to do it.