We’re Not Ready for a Population That Lives to 100
Living longer means making changes to how society functions. We need to get ready.
Want to live to 100? Be careful what you wish for. It could happen in the next generation, so you’ll have to figure out what to do with that extra time.
A recent study from the Mayo Clinic was widely covered the last few days, touting a new breakthrough. In an experiment, researchers explained that they isolated cells in mice linked to the aging process, and managed to eliminate them. In many cases they were able to extend the healthy lifetime of normal mice by 25 percent.
Twenty-five percent: that’s a big number. With Americans on average living to about 80, another quarter of a lifetime brings us flush up against that centenarian mark. It sounds great, getting to see the entirety of a century pass by.
But it’s not all birthday candles and great grandchildren: society isn’t designed for that many seniors, even if they’re healthy, and our culture isn’t designed to give otherwise healthy people over 65 a meaningful existence.
“The challenge is that the greatest success of humankind, longer life, is now its greatest paradox,” says Joseph Coughlin, the director of MIT’s AgeLab, “because we have no idea what we’re going to do with that additional 20, 30, 40 years. We don’t know what to do with those additional years that we enjoy today.”
Coughlin studies many aspects of the way we age—everything from how people plan for retirement, to how they live their lives after that milestone hits. He says adding extra decades on to people’s lives will require changes in many aspects of our culture and economy: people may work longer, they may change jobs as they age, and they may be making different decisions about what to do with the “golden years” in the decades to come—because right now, we’re not thinking that way.
“If you think culturally, socially, after about 67 we run out of narrative as to what to do,” he explains. “There’s only so many cruise ships that you can enjoy norovirus on, only so many golf games, so many daughters to walk down a wedding aisle.”
Those problems are shared already by a growing number of people. “Already the fastest growing part of the population is 85-plus,” explains Coughlin. “If we start making this over 100 years, we’ve really got to start renegotiating the social contract as to what people do at a younger age, and come up with new things to do in older age.”
Those changes won’t just be to retirement plans and social security either. Coughlin explains that, “The life milestones are not simply a legal issue. What’s harder to address are the expectations of what people have grown up with—believing that 65 or 62 or 67 has got some sort of magical number attached to it when it comes to retirement.”
That’s not going to be the case forever, and already many people are grappling with the issue. Coughlin says “telling people that, especially if they’re office workers, you’re going to be working to 75 or maybe even beyond, is less about them working longer and more about the feeling that they had a promise broken to them.”
It’s not just about that promise. Even when people do manage to retire, they’ll have more years to plan for. It may mean fewer people find a home somewhere to park themselves in until the end, because there will also be infrastructure problems. Coughlin says that 70 percent of Americans over age 50 live in suburban or rural areas. “I can guarantee you transportation planning never comes into play when they’re planning retirement,” he says, noting that proximity to basic services and access to activities outside the home is often a problem.
That all adds up to a largely different set of expectations than the last generation had about the last years of their life. It’s going to require a change in mindset, and the adoption of a new social contract—and more.
“It’s not just about changing the contract. It’s about changing expectations, it’s about new institutions, and it’s about creatively using technology not just to live longer, but to stay educated and productive,” says Coughlin, “to stay on the job longer or to learn new careers, to stay mobile and remain in our homes.
“There are at least three or four wheels we need to turn before 100 years of quality living is achieved, because I think we may reach 100 years of life much sooner than we’re able to crack the ability to live longer, better.”
Part of that comes with treating old age as more than a winding down period. Coughlin says that media attention needs to be drawn to the active senior lifestyle, to give people something to do. “If you think about the magazines that are out there for aging adults…if you’re not out golfing or on a cruise ship there’s not much to do. We need people that are about arts and science to create this lifestyle that younger people will look forward to and that older people will be able to manage.”
Coughlin says a lot of this will be about searching for a new normal that’s about more than leisure time, and defining the golden years with renewed purpose. “Everything that we have pretty well planned out between age 0 and 67, you don’t have too much choice,” he explains. “You run out of that age 67. That line was developed over decades, and here we are 70 years into the baby boom generation talking about how people are going to live longer.”
Coughlin says the new retirement mantra should include three elements: “Do I have something to do, and something to do it with, as part of the new retirement future.”
There are a lot of progress to make in life’s cultural arenas, and Coughlin says there will also be changes in the way people take and change jobs: some professions may be a young person’s game. “I’m sitting here in a college where I get paid to run my mouth off and drive a keyboard. Then there’s somebody who actually works for a living, building houses or an ironworker, their bodies start to crack in their 50s. So we need to make some allowances, and also invest in the technology that maybe allows that person, enables that person to work longer with their bodies, not get hurt, and keep their strength up into longer life.”
He says one of the most needed changes is a new way of looking at education: as something continuing rather than to be completed. “The notion that you think that your education from year zero to year 18 or year 21 or more if you went to grad school is going to enable you to remain productive for a lifetime is actually kind of funny,” Coughlin explains.
“If you think about the pace of new knowledge, the velocity of technological development, where the iPhone and the iPad we take for granted but they’ve been here less than a decade…really me that means someone who graduated last May, within five years but definitely within a decade, they need not to really go back to school, but we need to create an ethos and an educational system that allows you to be educated 24/7 for a lifetime. So while we’re looking at the 70-year-old, this is really about the young people. We need to socialize people for longevity.”
And that may have impact on younger individuals too. Coughlin says the job market is going to be tougher on some professions than others. “The challenge is that we have a very lumpy job market,” he says, “so while there is a long line of people that may want to become English professors, or maybe management consultants, the petrochemical industry, the energy industry, air traffic controllers, nurses, doctors—guess what? We’ve got a shortage.”
But not everything will be able to take a major shift on the social timeline. The time for, say, starting a family, will still be limited largely by biology. So it’s possible that in a generation, grandparents will still be employees and great grandparents will be the ones retired and taking care of the kids during the day.
Speaking of responsibilities, older workers may have some benefits to bring to the table, especially in certain professions. “Older adults are far better at customer service…than young people,” says Coughlin. “They’re more likely to be patient, they’re more likely to listen, they’re more likely to be in turn to what that customer wants—and not so good on the assembly line, on the stock market floor making trades. So the idea of having multiple careers may have to be the new normal.”
If this seems like a lot to react to as a culture, we’ve got time. While the research is promising, Coughlin notes that it’s not a switch to be flipped from 80 to 100. “I think it’s going to be a lot more incremental than we think,” he says. “I don’t see an injection, so to speak, any time soon.”
That gives us some time to begin adapting before the numbers shift too dramatically. But the changes that come will likely affect everyone, not just a single generation or a single age group. Life will be much different in a hundred years, and many people already on the planet will have to solve the problems that come up, because they’ll still be here to suffer if they’re not solved.
“We’ve got fundamental structural, institutional, and individual issues that are going to be driven by the new longevity economy or revolution, if you will. It started with mice, but it’s going to end up with mankind.”