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.
“A two-year increase in the median retirement age over the next decade would add almost $13 trillion to real US GDP during the next 30 years,” argues a McKinsey Global Institute study titled “Why the Baby Boomers Will Need to Work Longer.” The alternative is a significant economic slowdown.
Nudging the median retirement age up from today’s 62 to 64 might indeed do wonders for the economy. But to stave off psychological ennui, we’ll need to aim higher—to assume that, as long as they’re healthy enough, people will continue to work into their 70s. Just as we ask children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” we should start asking adults (i.e., ourselves), “What do you want to be between ages 50 and 75?”
The point is not to make irrevocable plans, any more than we expect all those four-year-olds to become fire fighters or movie stars. It’s to change the pictures in our heads, to give up the images that “Floridization” evokes, as either a warning or an implicit ideal. People do not automatically become crotchety, backward-looking, and idle when they reach their 60s.
But changing that picture means exchanging today’s architectural metaphor, “building a career,” for another one: adaptive reuse. This is the human-capital equivalent of turning industrial lofts into apartments, power plants into art museums, or saw mills into shopping centers. Your original career may be economically obsolete, or you may just want a change, but your knowledge and experience still have their charms. Instead of equating success with a steady progression of better-paying jobs, each related to the previous one, this model emphasizes taking on new challenges and making new contributions, even if that means going back to school, taking a pay cut, or starting as a trainee when you’re middle-aged.
One version of this idea is the “encore career” advocated by Marc Freedman, who has made one of the most prominent attempts to think what how longer, healthier lives should mean for Americans’ careers. In Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life. Freedman envisions older workers “serving as the glue of society in much the way women carried a whole set of caring professions in the first half of the twentieth century” by “bringing the accumulated skills from the first half of working life to the higher goals of their second acts.” (Freedman has received financial support from the Templeton Foundation, the publisher of BQO.)
He’s right about the accumulated skills, but his metaphor comes bundled with an essentially aristocratic vision of quasi-amateur work. Freedman imagines that people will earn enough in the first two decades of their lives to subsidize their second careers, much as those midcentury women (many of whom were unpaid volunteers) were subsidized by their husbands. Besides, teachers, nurses, and social workers aren’t the only people doing “work that matters”—or that satisfies. Commercial employment can be as important and meaningful as the helping professions. Just ask the catering manager overseeing your daughter’s wedding.
Freedman’s vision is too narrow. It’s as though old buildings could only become artists’ lofts, not shopping centers, offices, or even apartments for non-artists. As a metaphor, adaptive reuse doesn’t play favorites. It simply reminds us that, like the ornate facades or high ceilings of old buildings, older workers’ experiences and perspectives may be easier to repurpose than to replicate, and that having a reminders of the past can itself be valuable.
But, as in architecture, adaptive reuse is not the same as simple preservation. It implies change, the ability to adapt to new circumstances and add new content to old structures. Think of midcentury fashion photographer Lillian Bassman learning Photoshop at 87, as she reclaimed work she abandoned in the 1970s.
Or, as I always do in this context, consider my friend Joan Kron, a journalistic dynamo who wrote her first story at age 41. Not counting motherhood, journalism was her fourth career, made possible because some young editors wanted her knowledge of the social scene and avant garde art world. To access the kind of human capital it takes decades to accumulate, they were happy to teach her some professional skills—adaptive reuse.
That was in 1969. As Joan says on her website, “You do the math.”
Joan loves her current job, covering plastic surgery for Allure. (She’s had several face lifts and looks about 60, a form of adaptation that helps counter the prejudices of the young.) But, like every other journalist, she’s acutely aware of how the media world is changing. So she’s been going to night school to learn documentary film-making. She’s ready for Allure’s iPad edition and beyond. What she isn’t ready for is retirement. Nor will she touch the money her late husband left her. “That,” she says, “is for my old age.”
This essay was originally published on Virginia’s Substack and was previously published in the Templeton Foundation’s now-defunct publication Big Questions Online in August 2010. Header photo of “Joan Kron and her son Daniel, with whom she shares a birthday, blowing out candles on their cakes.”