Science says it’s better to enjoy life now and “borrow time” from your golden years.
Illustration by Tom Eichacker.
Human lifespans are now longer than ever.
Currently, the average 65-year-old can expect to live an additional 19.4 years compared to just 1950, when their same-age counterpart would only live approximately 13.9 more years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the population of adults 85 and older is projected to increase 351% by 2050.
Think that’s astonishing? How about this: The first humans expected to live to age 150 are already alive, according to experts on aging and longevity.
At first glance, this is a mind-blowing projection — until you consider that more adults are living past 110 and that the record holder for longest recorded age, Jeanne Louise Calment of France, lived to 122.
Astonishing or not, longer life will force people to rethink how (and how long) they work, and focus more on increasing the quality of these longer lives rather than rushing to retirement in their relatively spry 60s.
“We are at this huge historical event where people are living longer than they have ever lived, and our lifespans have practically doubled,” says Tamara Sims, a research psychologist at Stanford’s Lifespan Development Lab. “My mentor Laura Carstensen talks about redesigning the model and expanding our definition of middle age. It requires a cultural change — no easy task.”
One such way to redesign the model, Sims suggests, is rather than working furiously until the “magic age” of 62.5 (the earliest you can access social security benefits without penalties), people could “borrow time from their golden years.” This means people would work less in the early years, maybe part-time, to raise families, pursue creative goals, and stay healthy — with the awareness that they’ll work longer than their parents and grandparents.
While it may be “too late” for the boomers to borrow much time, millennials, those who are approximately 18-32 years old, might just be the perfect generation at the perfect time to get on top of their work-life balance. Making up approximately one-third of the U.S. population, there are approximately 75.4 million* millennials, surpassing baby boomers in number.
And while they’ve gotten a bad rap for having a sense of entitlement to do what they want when they want it, the Great Recession in 2008 forced them to focus on their careers as a priority over life events their grandparents would have already achieved by their age, such as marriage, kids, and buying homes.
With everyone living longer, and 10,000 more boomers retiring every day — meaning there will be 83.1 million boomers by 2050 — the notion of social security’s availability to everyone grows ever slimmer. Millennials and younger generations will be forced to find the motivation to work longer — and smarter.
Dawn Carr, a social science gerontologist in Stanford’s Center on Longevity, hopes to raise awareness that the baby boomers’ model of retirement won’t fly for future generations. “It’s not realistic to think you’ll spend 30 years working to finance 60 years of life,” she says.
Carr suggests that younger people may want to put more thought into selecting careers that “allow you to grow and develop over a long time. You may want to recognize that your work life very well should continue much later than we’ve been conceiving. Meaningful work can give you purpose and value, and enhance later life.”
Moreover, there are important health reasons to consider working beyond the age of 65. People who engage in meaningful work of some kind after retirement, for pay or as a volunteer, have better outcomes for health and emotional well-being in later life.
Sims reinforces the importance of staying active: “When people retire, if they go from working a lot to not working at all, or if they are forced into retirement, we see some decline in cognitive and emotional well-being.”
Perhaps a “restructuring” of work could allow for more innovation and freedom, as well; millennials are already a highly entrepreneurial bunch. And the economy will need them to be at their best given their sheer numbers — they will power the labor force for decades to come.
Andrew Reed, a postdoctoral scholar who splits his time between Stanford’s Center on Longevity and the Lifespan Development lab, adds, “Maybe giving younger adults a time where they don’t have a 9-5 job, to raise kids, or chase some of their passions, could be an interesting way to give them some quasi-experience with retirement before they get there.”
This might include the recent trend of taking a “gap year” for graduates fresh out of college before they jump into the workforce.
“People may think they are only going to live another 10 to 15 years in retirement,” Reed says, “but it could be an entire third phase of your life that is potentially equal in [time] to the first two.”
With longer life comes a need for greater creativity — now and well into the future.
*This number has been corrected.