What will living longer mean for individuals, and for society?

It’s up to us to build a world in which we can live long, productive, happy lives!

Written by Stannah

What will living longer mean for individuals, and for society?

“Supersized life spans are going to radically alter society, and present an unprecedented opportunity to change our approach not only to old age but to all life’s stages. The ramifications are just beginning to dawn on us… yet in the meantime, we keep thinking about, and planning for, life as it used to be lived” – Laura Carstensen, in “A Long Bright Future

When dealing with senior citizens every day, across the world, it became urgent for us at Stannah to be able to understand and answer this question: what will living longer mean for individuals, and for society? That is why we took an interest in Laura Carstensen’s research on Aging Societies. Laura Carstensen is a Professor at Stanford University, where she is also the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. We couldn’t have found a more inspirational and accurate account of what aging means nowadays and a more positive approach towards the challenges that living longer will pose to the individual and to society.

As the title suggests – “A Long Bright Future”— is exactly what we hope the twenty-first century has given us: 30 years of extra life!

What are we going to do with super-sized lives?

This is the first question posed by Professor Carstensen in her book. Have you ever thought about it? The average person will live 30 years more than they would have 100 years ago. Old age as we see it now is, in fact, a new phenomenon. As we stated in one of our latest blog posts – “The Role of Senior Citizens throughout History”, to live 60 years was the exception. Only a few fortunate people would reach that age. But now, living up to our 80s and 90s is the norm. Would it be bold to say that we have started aiming to reach our 100s? According to the RDNS Institute, in 2017 there are 123 centenarians in Australia, and more than 1,000 “near centenarians” aged 95 to 99. That is four times more than ten years ago. And the good news is that by 2050, this number will likely exceed 1 million.

But many of us still think about the years after 65 as a synonym of loss, decay and death. Usually, we avoid thinking about aging. As Carstensen puts it:

“As a society, we have little concept of what it is like to be a happy, healthy one-hundred-year-old. (…) because these extra years were added to life so suddenly, our culture has not caught up yet.” (in “A Long Bright Future”, p.4)

We haven’t caught up yet, that is why there is still a collective anxiety about growing older, as if old age will rob us of everything. And the reality is that seniors are more active than ever and living quite successfully, on their own, and aging in place. However, this is not intended to be a romanticized picture of old age. There are age-related diseases and hardships that lower the quality of life for many senior citizens, but science and technology are trying to solve many of the practical problems of aging. We can provide the example of Stannah, a company that has been developing assistive technology to help senior customers age in place without the risk of falling down the stairs.

At Stannah we have borne witness to how our customers struggle to accept assistive technology or mobility devices, as they fear it would be an acknowledgement of their weakness. There is still a stigma around old age and for over 40 years, Stannah has been advocating for aging acceptance and looking forward to a “long bright future” for our customers as their environment and their houses become more and more age-friendly.

That is why this book is so interesting for Stannah! It poses a challenge to our society to be more age-inclusive and more aware of our social and physical environment: it does not deny that “aging is a biological process, but the environment in which we age plays a critical role in steering the course” (p.8).

What you think you know about aging is wrong!

Before thinking about what old age is going to be in the twenty-first century, let’s start by deconstructing some myths about a long life. This is the first chapter of Laura Carstensen’s book “A Long Bright Future”, and she presents at least five myths that could be an impediment to the change we need:

1 – “Older people are sad and lonely”

For Professor Laura Carstensen, who has been investigating the psychology of aging for the last 30 years, it has become quite clear that, in terms of emotional stability, the best years come later in life.

Except for dementia-related diseases, older people usually suffer less from depression and anxiety, i.e., mental health generally improves with health.

This is quite shocking, because we tend to associate happiness only with health, beauty and power. How can older people be happy? It’s all about “socioemotional selectivity.” It means that they find a new way of evaluating situations to determine whether they are worth their time, attention, worry or wrath, and focus on what’s positive. Also, they worry less about what others think of them.

2 – “Your whole fate is foretold in your genes”

Family health history can indicate our risk for serious medical problems such has cancer, heart disease and diabetes, illnesses that, of course, could shorten our lifespan. However, as Professor Carstensen states: “predisposition is not the same as a prediction”. This is because there is another factor at play: our physical and social environment.

In this context, “environment” means not only physical surroundings, but also diet, stress, chemical exposure, and behavior. Our actions and our social environment has a lot of influence on us. So, it’s smarter to believe in the life you make for yourself, meaning that “genetics may deal you certain cards, but you choose how to play them” (p.26).

3 – “We should rush to exit the workforce”

At the moment, added years of life have translated directly into more years of leisure. People are now retiring before their predecessors in the 1960s and 1970s. This is a very controversial question because, on the one hand, you have those who argue that after decades paying into Social Security, they should be allowed to retire earlier. On the other hand, some will argue that if millions of people do this, it will bankrupt the Social Security system. Well, does this mean we all need to work longer? In an era where we are expected to live until our eighties, nineties or beyond, are we ready to have two or three decades of leisure? Even worse, can we afford a multidecade retirement? The model was built for a shorter life. For this reason, working for 40 years to save money for 40 years of leisure doesn’t seem realistic. Some say that if we could make our work lives more satisfying throughout life, we could rise retirement age, although this wouldn’t be fair for people who work grueling jobs. A model that could work is if we were able to choose: for instance, part-time work, volunteering or, as Carstensen suggests “adopt(ing) an entirely new second career”.

4 – “Older people are a drain on the world’s life”

The scarcity and global overpopulation myths are the most dangerous ones because they set the stage for intergenerational competition. In actual fact, education, income, good health care, sanitation and nutrition, all the factors that lead to increased life expectancy, are also the cause for a diminishing birth rate.

All in all, are not going to have a population that’s larger, but a grayer one. However, this is only true for industrialized and developed countries. The scenario will be quite the contrary in Africa, parts of Asia and the Middle East, where life expectancy is shorter and birth rates are higher.

5 – “We age alone”

Everyone around you is aging. There’s nothing that can stop the aging process. So, you are not alone!

“Aging is inevitable. How you age is not. You will very likely spend about three decades of your life as an old person.” And the challenge for everyone will be what do we want to be as old people: “Will you help younger people develop their careers or lead by example in showing them how to be renowned at age ninety? Will you be the best grandparent any child ever had? Will you be the designer who develops a very fashionable clothing line for women over seventy?” (p.40)

The question is: are we all up to this challenge? As a group?

What is old age going to be like in the twenty-first century?

“We’ve got the smarts and we’ve got the numbers. Think of it as the boomers’ last revolt.” (p.12).

By debunking some myths and misconceptions about aging, Laura Carstensen guides us to new possibilities offered by a longer life, without the anxiety of aging. She provides us with guidance on how to adequately prepare ourselves for a long bright future, as individuals and as a society. For sure, she envisions a twenty-first century where boomers and the generations to come can live in a world in which we can live long, productive, happy lives.