We need a major redesign of life

In this op-ed from The Washington Post, Laura Carstenen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, writes about the repercussions of women’s longer lives on our finances, work, health, and more. Carstenen was a featured speaker at Engage’s February 2020 Summit, held at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York.

Laura L. Carstensen, a professor of psychology, is the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity.

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 quality of life, we tacked them all on at the end. Only old age got longer.

As a result, most people 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 satisfying, engaged and meaningful century-long lives can look like, we will certainly fail to build worlds that can take us there.

In my view, the tension surrounding aging is due largely to the speed with which life expectancy increased. Each generation is born into a world prepared by its ancestors with knowledge, infrastructure and social norms. 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.

Long lives are not the problem. The problem is living in cultures designed for lives half as long as the ones we have.

Retirements that span four decades are unattainable for most individuals and governments; education that ends in the early 20s is ill-suited for longer working lives; and social norms that dictate intergenerational responsibilities between parents and young children fail to address families that include four or five living generations.

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