To date, however, the concern has been largely misplaced, with the emphasis on aging as opposed to an emphasis on the cultures that surrounds very long lives. By culture, we are referring to the crucible that holds science, technology, and large scale behavioral practices and social norms. We maintain that the more serious problems concern antiquated social norms and the lack of cultural supports for people 50 and older, such as medical treatments for common diseases of old age and technologies and services that allow people to age in place, and social norms that encourage life-long participation in communities, families and workplaces. The culture that guides people through life today is a culture that evolved around shorter lives. The urgent challenge now is to create cultures that support people through ten and more decades of life.

Although predictions about the future are always perilous, we can comfortably predict that life will change and can change such that longer lives improve quality of life at all ages. Unfortunately to date we have been decidedly uncreative about ways to use added years of life. These years have been tacitly tacked on to the end of life, with old age the only stage in life that has gotten longer. Rather than move forward by happenstance, we need strategic thinking about how to best use added decades of life. Helping individuals and nations visualize, plan and prepare is essential in order to ensure that longer lives are high quality.

Changing the nature, timing and duration of work will be key. Individuals and societies must effectively finance very long lives and so far we are doing a poor job. Life expectancy at age 65 for the world’s population increased by roughly fifty percent from the 1950s to the present time, while the average age of retirement has remained relatively constant. [1] Between now and 2030, the number of people in developed countries over the “conventional” retirement age of 65 will increase by more than thirty percent. At the same time, the size of the conventional working-age population in developed countries is projected to decline by four percent. To the extent that nothing changes, the ratio of the working-age population to retirees will steadily decrease in the foreseeable future. Of course, these projections are based on the assumption that people continue to retire at relatively young ages. One obvious, although surprisingly ignored, way to address the challenges posed by the declining number and share of working-age population is to expand the workforce by increasing the workforce participation of older workers and, in some countries, women.

Increasingly, research findings suggest that this is feasible. A substantial majority of people 60 to 70 years of age report that they are physically able to work. A 2014 paper published in the Journal of Gerontology found that 85% of Americans aged 65-69 report no health-based limitations on paid work or housework.[2] Similar trends are evident in Europe. [3] To be sure, the numbers of disabled individuals has, and will continue to, increase in aging societies and it is extremely important to have policies that support people who cannot work. We maintain that the generosity of disability insurance should increase, yet we must recognize that chronological age is a poor predictor of the ability to work. Even at very advanced ages, substantial numbers of people are sufficiently healthy to contribute to workplaces. Societies that find ways to tap older peoples’ contributions will benefit greatly.

Although the idea of longer working lives often meets resistance, evidence for the benefits of work to individuals is growing. Arguably, the most obvious reason to work longer is the financial benefit. For many, retirement at age 65 is economically infeasible. In the words of Stanford economist John Shoven, “the reality is that few workers can fund a 30 year retirement with a 40 year career”.[4] Neither can societies. In recent years, it is becoming clear that remaining active and engaged in work is also associated with physical, socioemotional, and cognitive benefits. Studies of healthy aging suggest that older adults who are engaged have lower mortality rates, are less likely to experience various physical and mental illnesses, and are more likely to have a strong sense of identity and well-being.[5] Working longer also has protective effects against cognitive decline, [6] ostensibly by providing a mentally engaging environment where workers can “use it” so they don’t “lose it.” Research suggests that both paid and unpaid work are associated with enhanced well-being, delayed disability, decreased mortality risk, and onset of fewer diseases and associated functional impairments. [7],[8],[9],[10] New models of working longer can relieve some of the pressure to save large sums of money for extended periods of leisure. Importantly, working longer can mean working differently. Many workers would be happy to exchange decades-long retirements in old age for four day work weeks, regular time off for sabbaticals, retraining, and part-time work when children are young as well as at advanced ages as people fade into retirement.

[1] “Population Facts”, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, December, 20-13

[2] Lowsky, Olshansky, Bhattacharya, Goldman, “Heterogeneity in Healthy Aging”, J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci first published online November 17, 2013 doi:10.1093/gerona/glt162

[3] A. Börsch-Supan, Myths, Scientific Evidence and Economic Policy in an Aging World, J. Econ. Ageing, 1–2 (2013), pp. 3–15

[4] Ford, John Patrick. 2014. “How to support a 30-year retirement.” San Diego Source.

[5] Rowe, John W. and Robert L. Kahn. 1998. Successful Aging. New York: Pantheon; Cohen, Sheldon. 2004. “Social Relationship and Health.” American Psychologist 59:676-684.

[6] Rohwedder, Susann and Robert J. Willis. 2010. “Mental Retirement.” Journal of Economic Perspectives. 24:119-138

[7] Rohwedder, Susann, and Robert J. Willis. 2010. “Mental Retirement.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 24(1): 119-38.

[8] Carr DC, Komp K, editors. “Gerontology in the era of the third age: implications and next steps.” New York: Springer Publishers; 2011: 207-224

[9] Morrow-Howell N, Hinterlong J, Rozario PA, Tang F. “Effects of volunteering on the well-being of older adults.”   J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2003; 58B:S137–S145. Doi: 10.1093/geronb/58.3.S137

[10] Matz-Costa C, Besen E, James JB, Pitt-Catsouphes M. “Differential impact of multiple levels of productive activity engagement on psychological well-being in middle and later life.” The Gerontologist. 2012. Doi: 10.1093/geront/gns148