90 Candles: Living Longer Changes Everything

By Angela Renee

Are you ready to plan a party—your 90th birthday party?

That’s the question a dozen of my office mates, ranging in age from 22 to 42, started asking one other after completing this free online survey about life expectancy. The questionnaire—created by Lyle Ungar, PhD, professor of computer science at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School—calculates life expectancy based on 14 factors, including current age and race. The average life expectancy for that group of 12? A staggering 92.

If you’re as surprised by those numbers as they were, consider this. Data compiled by the Social Security Administration indicates that about a quarter of today’s 65-year-olds are expected to reach their 90th birthday, too—and a tenth of those 90-year-olds will live past age 95.

This is thanks to science and technology. Over the past two hundred years, advances in medicine and hygiene reduced child mortality rates, and vaccines and antibiotics have decreased the proliferation of infectious diseases for those of all ages. Plus, refrigeration, pasteurization, and water purification have protected our food and water supplies—furthering health in the developed world.

Just how much have these advances affected life expectancy? In the period between 1850 and 1900, the average life span was 40 years. By 1940, according to the National Center of Health Statistics, the average life expectancy of people of all races and genders in the U.S. was 62. By 1950, that bumped to age 68, and rose to age 77 by the year 2000.

Many in the wealth management industry have been watching this rising longevity curve closely because of its impact on retirement planning. If more and more folks are living into their 90s, they and their advisors must ask themselves, “Will the money last?”

For those of us who are still working—and who are bound to shape the thinking of future workers—we may need to adjust our mindset about the years ahead. If it’s likely that we will live into our 90s, is the usual flightpath of retiring at 65 doable? Desirable?

Maybe not, suggests Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, and author of “A Long Bright Future”—a book our firm regularly shares with clients.

Carstensen recommends we rewrite our concept of retirement altogether. “Most people can’t save enough in 40 years of working to support themselves for 30 or more years of not working,” she said in an interview with Fidelity Viewpoints. “I’d like to see us move in a different direction: toward a longer, much more flexible working life, with more part-time work, in which people could come in and out of the workforce and have greater opportunities for education throughout their lives.”

This seems like the right direction to take—and the first step is acknowledging that’s exactly where we are headed. If we concede that we will all be working longer, we should also ask ourselves what kind of work we can sustain—and hopefully enjoy—over the long haul. It’s a question that is bound to yield varying answers over time as our culture, our technology, our desires, our bodies, and our knowledge bases continue to evolve; but one we must keep asking.

While we are at it, we might want to reevaluate our birthday cakes. We either need to make them a lot bigger, or the candles need to be much, much smaller.