Backpedaling on the Life Cycle

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

PALO ALTO, CALIF. -- What if we turned the life cycle upside down? I am sitting in the office of Laura L. Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, and we're exploring ideas for a new chronological agenda that would be more appropriate for a life span of 80 years or more. What if . . .

· . . . ages 20 to 40 were the Social Security years? Instead of going to older men and women, Social Security checks would be sent to young adults. This would give people in their reproductive years the economic support they need to focus on raising children. Young parents could supplement their Social Security check with part-time work, community service and continuing education so that they would gain skills and experience in preparation for full-time work. (They would also get health coverage through Medicare.)

· . . . ages 40 to 75 were the prime earning years? Men and women could throw themselves into a job or project without the stress and guilt around raising a family at the same time. They could work full time and overtime -- building up their 401(k)s and other life savings as well as paying back into Social Security for the support they had received.

· . . . ages 75 and older were the national service years? Instead of largely staffing programs such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps with young recruits looking for experience, the government would target these programs to the millions of older Americans who have experience. They could work on a flexible schedule in schools, parks, libraries, business development projects, health centers and the like throughout the United States and around the world, in return for a monthly stipend (and government health insurance).

Crazy, you say?

But wait: Longevity is changing the rules of human development. The revolutionary implications of the global age boom are just beginning to get public attention. The journal Science explored the impact of aging in a special section earlier this year. Central to rethinking aging is to rethink the patterns of each stage in the life cycle -- especially work patterns.

Our current system is irrational. We concentrate on work at a time in our lives when we are having children and our children need us the most. We tend to leave or be eased out of the workplace when we have completed the child-rearing tasks -- about age 50 -- and now have time and energy to devote to work. And in our later decades, we are stereotyped as useless.

At the same time, living longer is causing financial tremors as individuals, employers and government programs struggle to find ways to finance the golden decades for a swelling population of older men and women. An immediate fix is to keep people employed longer -- and surveys show that most boomers want to work, at least part time -- after they officially retire.

But the solution to the coming financial crisis is not just about postponing the age of traditional retirement. It is about reorganizing work at all ages.

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