Longevity in the 21st Century

A talk given at the Aquarium of the Pacific by Dr. Laura Carstensen, Director, Stanford Center on Longevity, written by Samantha J. Garcia, CFP®, AIF®, CDFA®.

Laura began her presentation by letting everyone in the room know that most of them would likely live to age 100 or beyond. In fact, children born after 2000 could live to be 100 or beyond. This is shocking, given the fact that for most of human evolution, a very short life expectancy was the norm. Five thousand years ago, life expectancy was just 18; by 1900, it had risen to age 47. Between 1900 and the end of the 20th century, life expectancy rose again, from 47 to 77—nearly doubling. In the same span of time, fertility rates dropped by half and age was redistributed within the population.

The redistribution of age means populations are no longer dominated by younger individuals with short life expectancies and this has taken place rapidly and for a variety of reasons. We invested in science: Medical science created vaccinations and cures to diseases that once killed off significant numbers of people. In addition, in the US and Europe, the systematic disposal of waste helped limit the spread of diseases, and purified water and the food fortification helped us to eliminate nutritional disorders within about 20 years.  Part of the result was childhood mortality dropped dramatically.

Education is a strong predictor of longevity

Most important to our aging populations and longevity was the creation of public education for children. At some point in adulthood, education is a better predictor of longevity than age. There is now little difference in the education levels of those in their 50s and 60s versus those in their 30s and 40s, which is different from 50 years ago. Education is also a factor in predicting how long people will engage in the workforce.

When we focus on health, in addition to the number of diagnoses a person has, we should consider functional health. Functional health helps determine whether a person can still work. Changing this focus shifts the dynamics of how older populations are viewed. A number of diagnoses are specific to aging populations. Depending on the diagnosis, people can still be functionally healthy.

Laura emphasizes, “When you are concerned about what might go wrong, you lose sight of what might go right.”

Tapping the human capital of older people

As a society, we need to work on how to successfully engage multiple age cohorts in the workforce. For the first time in history there will be six or more birth cohorts in the workforce at the same time. Our culture needs to understand the value of each—and how they can contribute. Older people are needed in the workforce and can offer a lot to younger colleagues. Older people are more emotionally stable than younger people and older workers do well with available resources as they age. There are studies that show age diversity within teams increases productivity, with fewer mistakes made. Studies also show that people get happier as they get older because they are more emotionally stable, more grateful, and more appreciative. And their marriages get better.

Laura believes that we have the opportunity to redesign what life looks like in terms of education, work, and leisure. It was once thought that these were pursued in strict order, but with people living longer, it doesn’t necessarily look that way anymore. Some people are going back to school after they have worked in a career for a number of years. They want to start a new career, maybe in their 40s or even 50s. Looking back to 1900, this was rarely an option: Life expectancy then was just 47.

We can change the nature of human aging and develop new ways to tap the human capital of older people. People work for two reasons: Money and meaning. Money is a solvable problem, but meaning may be more difficult to solve unless we can redefine work or find a way to work differently.

Laura’s conclusion: “The greatest risk of failure is setting the bar too low.”