Dynamist Blog

"Adaptive Reuse" and Careers: How to Live Longer & Prosper

My latest column at Big Questions Online argues that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, an aging population need not be an economic or cultural calamity--but it does require new thinking about careers. Here's the opening:

In 1955, a 50-year-old American could expect, on average, to live to be about 75. By 2005, that number had jumped to 81, with a significant improvement in health and vitality. (Unlike statistics for life expectancy at birth, these numbers do not reflect changes in infant mortality or other deaths before age 50.) Even more striking, the chances that a 50 year old would live past 80 rose from a mere 37 percent to 58 percent — a new norm.

So why aren't we celebrating?

"Live long and prosper" once sounded like the most logical of greetings: good wishes everyone could agree on. But now that people are actually experiencing significantly longer lives — not in decrepitude but in relatively good health — attitudes have changed. Longevity has come to portend "an aging society" and the very opposite of prosperity.

The fears are far more profound than mere fiscal concerns about Social Security and Medicare. Illustrating a common reaction, Los Angeles Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez warns of the "Floridization of America," with "a less optimistic and forward-thinking culture." Looking at Japan's "exhausted" and "depressed" but otherwise healthy elderly, he fears "an epidemic of loneliness and ennui." His conclusion: "Be careful what you wish for. You could make it to 100, with consequences as onerous as the ones you ate right and exercised to avoid."

Buried in this column is a crucial assumption: that people over 65 will be retired.

They'll withdraw from active engagement with younger colleagues, from productive problem-solving, from the world outside their seniors-only enclaves. They'll spend 20 or 30 years playing golf, watching TV, and chasing people off their lawns. They'll occasionally visit the grandkids, but mostly they'll wait to die. They won't learn anything new.

Even ignoring the question of how to pay for those retirements, that assumption makes neither economic nor psychological sense. Assume the life expectancy numbers are correct. (They're best estimates, and may be understated.) Six years added to a 40-year working life represent a 15 percent increase, the equivalent of nearly two extra months of work a year. That's a lot of economic potential, especially when you multiply it by 79 million baby boomers.

Read the rest here.

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