Seeing Our Way to Financial Security in the Age of Increased Longevity

In the past century, the developed world has experienced a rapid, transformative, biological shift in aging resulting in a modern-day miracle where people can realistically expect to enjoy 100 year lives. How we are doing as a society after being gifted with an additional 30 plus years of life? Are we taking full advantage of this gift? Or are we missing the mark, reaching old age ill-prepared and in worse shape than preceding generations? In 2016, we launched the Sightlines Project beginning with a first look at just this question by zooming out to paint a bird’s eye portrait of how well Americans are living in this newfound era of longevity. To do so, we focused on three domains of well-being known to be the building blocks of not just living longer, but living better: financial security, social engagement, and healthy living. 

The inaugural Sightlines Project report illustrated many trends, most of which indicate that we, as a society, are moving in the wrong direction. Americans are more sedentary today than in generations past and fewer report being socially connected within their communities compared to 20 years ago. The most prominent downward trends, however, emerged in the domain of financial security. This is not surprising given that we are witnessing unprecedented shifts in life expectancy, and at the same time, experiencing a period of unprecedented economic uncertainty. In concert, these shifts put generations of Americans at enormous risk for lifetimes of financial insecurity. Overall, these downward trends are especially steep for younger generations, the less educated, ethnic minorities, and women. Instead of making progress toward equality, improvements in longevity coupled with major economic upheaval has only widened existing inequalities as we look to the future.

In this report, we work to better understand what we observed in our bird’s eye view of American financial security by focusing in on what might predict financial security at different life stages. While there were many possibilities for investigation, we selectively identified the most compelling Sightlines findings on financial security that closely aligned with topics we see in the headlines. In the end, we zoomed in on four areas: generational shifts in U.S. home ownership, prognosis of Americans’ retirement contributions, Baby Boomer savings and debt, and women’s financial decision making. Based on the Sightlines framework, we analyze data across the adult life span using the latest nationally representative surveys from multiple sources including Survey of Consumer Finance, National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Rand American Life Panel, and the Health and Retirement Study.

In addition to these focal areas, we preview a sampling of cross-disciplinary and cross-sector research conducted by the Stanford Center on Longevity that aligns with Sightlines Project goals, including food hardship in King County, Fraud vulnerability, California teacher retirement preferences, and Latino financial literacy. The Sightlines Project website also continues to be a rich source of information, now updated with findings from this report and updated analyses of many financial security metrics using the most current data from 2016. All findings are segmented by age group and prevalent sociodemographic factors including education, income, marital status, and ethnicity. Throughout 2018, we will also use the website to foster interactive dialogue in response to our findings by inviting commentaries and interviews among experts in the field. In line with the Stanford Center on Longevity mission, dialogues will represent both academic and industry perspectives.