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Opinion We need a major redesign of life


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.

Children growing up with toxic stress from abuse or neglect are more likely to have lifelong health problems. California's surgeon general says there is hope. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

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.

Last year, the Stanford Center on Longevity launched an initiative called “The New Map of Life.” We 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. We charged them with envisioning what vibrant century-long lives would look like and then began the remapping process. How do traditional models of education, work, lifestyles, social relationships, financial planning, health care, early childhood and intergenerational compacts need to change to support long lives?

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.”

Financing longevity requires major rethinking. Rather than saving ever-larger pots of money for the end of life, we could pool risks in new ways. Generations may share wealth earlier than traditional bequests; we can start savings accounts at birth and allow young adults to work earlier so that compound interest can work in their favor.

Maintaining physical fitness from the beginning to end of life will be paramount. Getting children outside, encouraging sports, reducing the time we sit, and spending more time walking and moving will greatly improve individual lives.

In the year since this initial meeting, we have launched a postdoctoral program focused on deep dives into core domains of life that must change. The aim is to develop specific recommendations for governments, employers, businesses, parents and policymakers so that we can begin to lay the groundwork for cultures that support century-long lives. The challenges demand extraordinary social, scientific and educational investments. The opportunities are even more extraordinary.

Longer lives present us with an opportunity to redesign the way we live. The greatest risk of failure is setting the bar too low.

Read more:

Read Letters to the Editor responding to this op-ed

Robert J. Samuelson: We haven’t prepared for the aging monster

Arthur C. Brooks: ‘Transhumanist’ eternal life? No thanks, I’d rather learn not to fear death.

Jon Meacham: We’re in the middle of a revolution on death

The Post’s View: America is losing ground to death and despair