Maybe it’s time to get serious about a major “redesign of life.” 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 our quality of life, many just have a longer ‘elderly’ life.
As a result, many 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.” If we do not begin to envision what a satisfying, engaged and meaningful century-long life can look like, we will certainly fail to build worlds that can take us there.
According to a recent article in the Washington Post by Laura L. Carstensen, a professor of psychology and the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, the tension surrounding aging is due largely to the speed with which life expectancy has increased. “Each generation is born into a world prepared by its ancestors with knowledge, infrastructure and social norms,” she explains. “The human capacity to benefit from this inherited culture afforded us such extraordinary advantages that premature death was dramatically reduced in a matter of decades. Yet as longevity surged, culture didn’t keep up.”
Last year, the Stanford Center on Longevity launched an initiative called “The New Map of Life.” They began by convening a group of experts, including engineers, climate scientists, pediatricians, geriatricians, behavioral scientists, financial experts, biologists, educators, health-care providers, human resource consultants and philanthropists. This group was charged with envisioning what vibrant century-long lives would look like and then began the “remapping process.” Determining how the traditional models of education, work, lifestyles, social relationships, financial planning, health care, early childhood and intergenerational compacts would need to change to support long lives.
Laura Carstensen clarifies. “We quickly agreed that it would be a mistake to replace the old rigid model of life — education first, then family and work, and finally retirement — with a new model just as rigid. Instead, there should be many different routes, interweaving leisure, work, education and family throughout life, taking people from birth to death with places to stop, rest, change courses and repeat steps along the way. Old age alone wouldn’t last longer; rather, youth and middle age would expand, too.
“We agreed that longevity demands rethinking of all stages of life, not just old age. To thrive in an age of rapid knowledge transfer, children not only need reading, math and computer literacy, but they also need to learn to think creatively and not hold on to “facts” too tightly. They’ll need to find joy in unlearning and relearning. Teens could take breaks from high school and take internships in workplaces that intrigue them. Education wouldn’t end in youth but rather be ever-present and take many forms outside of classrooms, from micro-degrees to traveling the world.
“Work, too, must change. There’s every reason to expect more zigzagging in and out of the labor force — especially by employees who are caring for young children or elderly parents — and more participation by workers over 60. There is good reason to think we will work longer, but we can improve work quality with shorter workweeks, flexible scheduling and frequent retirements."
If these plans hold true, then financing longevity will require major rethinking as well. Rather than saving ever-larger pots of money for the end of life, generations may share wealth earlier than traditional bequests. Maintaining physical fitness from the beginning to the end of life will become very important. Getting children outside, encouraging sports, reducing the time we sit, and spending more time walking and moving will greatly improve lives.
For now, it is important to focus what we can change. Instead of just waiting to “get old” and deal with whatever that might bring, we can start building a plan that will help us live longer, more productively, and without becoming a burden. We encourage you to join us for one of our Tacoma Elder Care Workshops, where we can help you envision how your later years in life will go, and how to get there. All it takes is a plan.
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