EXTENDED REPORT | April 2022
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PART I: Connection, Community, Health and Climate
CHAPTER 2: ‘I Feel Needed’
CHAPTER 3: Places and Spaces for Thriving
CHAPTER 4: Extending Health Spans over Longer Lives
PART II: Learning and Earning
CHAPTER 5: Setting the Course through Play and Discovery
CHAPTER 6: Learning for Life
CHAPTER 7: New Pathways for Working, Saving and Retiring
PART III: Investing for Longevity
CHAPTER 8: The Road Ahead
We launched Stanford Center on Longevity’s New Map of Life initiative much as explorers always have, setting off for a destination fixed in our minds without a clear route to get there. We were time travelers, seeking a point in the near future when human lives would routinely reach 100 years. That year is quickly approaching – demographers estimate that by 2050 reaching the age of 100 will be routine, continuing a remarkable upward trend in life expectancy, which doubled between 1900 and 2000 in the U.S. as a result of reductions in infant mortality, advances in sanitation, medicine, and the widespread implementation of public education. Taken together, these improvements added 30 years to the overall American life expectancy, from 47 years in 1900 to nearly 77 years in 2000. Average life spans will continue to rise in the U.S., despite the grievous impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and deepening racial disparities.
The near doubling of human life expectancy in the U.S. and other economically advanced nations ranks as one of the greatest achievements in human history. Yet it came at such speed that the social institutions, economic policies, and social norms that evolved when people lived for half as long are no longer up to the task. The resulting narrative around an “aging society” seems to convey only a crisis, ignoring obvious opportunities to redesign those institutions, practices, and norms and bring them into sync with the health, social, and financial needs of 100-year lives. No generation has reached this 100-year milestone en masse before, and there isn’t a cultural script akin to “It Takes A Village ” for the journey.
So we decided to write one.
Our script dispenses with the notion that longevity and aging are one and the same – a long slide that at some point becomes a white-knuckled plunge into frailty, dependence, and irrelevance. The advent of 100-year lives coincides with declining birth rates, and these two defining demographic trends are often conflated into a crisis narrative about an aging society about to be engulfed by a “gray tsunami.” Our goal is to advance a new narrative that explores the more meaningful concept of longevity, the duration of life, and to identify actionable steps for enhancing the quality of longer lives. By drawing a distinction between the biological process of aging and the conditions that support long life, we focus on optimizing well-being at all stages of life for all people, starting at birth. Changing how we live changes how we age, and a different course of life holds the promise of tremendous opportunities that have been obscured by the “grey tsunami” mentality.
By drawing a distinction between the biological process of aging and the conditions that support long life, we focus on optimizing well-being at all stages of life for all people, starting at birth.
As the population distribution shifts to include more older people than young children, it signals a profound transformation for a society whose iconography is rooted in youth and vigor. We recognize that each stage of life brings its own developmental milestones, distinct health and emotional needs, family and social roles, relationships and responsibilities, financial risks, and opportunities. What happens along any of those dimensions during earlier stages of life affects all the stages that follow, for the better or for worse. In our story, early childhood merits as much of a makeover as old age, and midlife is as fitting a time to launch or pivot as is adolescence.
The New Map of Life extends well beyond the terrain of old age for this reason; it is our vision for engineering the entire life course with at least 30 more satisfying years of vitality and engagement, years that can be spent discovering, connecting, creating, producing, and above all, experiencing a sense of belonging, purpose, and worth.
This whole-of-life approach is critical because to realize the opportunities that longevity affords, we must remedy the inequities that have so far prevented too many Americans from experiencing the benefits of longer, healthier lives due to their race, place of birth, or socioeconomic status. Becoming a longevity-ready society impels us to address longstanding race- and class-based disparities in healthcare, education, housing, and other social goods that hinder the opportunity for all Americans to experience longer, healthier lives.
Achieving longer, healthier lives for the full population is, to us, the cornerstone of success. As a nation, we can –and must– invest in ways that benefit all, starting with improving the trajectory earlier in life for children in neighborhoods without safe and healthy places to play, learn, and grow, key environmental conditions that support longevity.
In 2018, the Center launched the New Map initiative with a convening of world-renowned experts that included academics from a wide range of disciplines, stakeholders and policy makers, industry executives, and thought leaders. With the premise that once we articulated the challenge, we would have the collective wisdom to build solutions. Arguably the most pernicious aspect of a crisis mentality is that it mutes aspirations – and we cannot achieve what we cannot envision.
For two days, we shared evidence, debated ideas, and began a conversation that alternated between wild optimism and clear-eyed constraints surrounding futures that last decades longer than any imagined by our great-grandparents. At the close of the meeting, the need for deeper understanding of the core aspects of life was clear. To explore new options for the life course and its many variables, we created a post-doctoral program and appointed an interdisciplinary team of talented fellows with expertise in nine domains we identified as core to longevity: early childhood, education, work, financial security, built environment, environment and climate, health and technology, lifestyle and fitness, and intergenerational relationships.
For two years, these fellows and their faculty advisors outlined what is, and what could be, within these critical domains. We created a weekly seminar for the fellows to provide a unique course on longevity from dozens of perspectives. In parallel, we expanded our thinking and informed our ideas with global perspectives from colleagues including Professor Andrew Scott, from the London Business School, Jack Rowe, leader of the MacArthur Network on Aging Societies, Michele Barry, Director of Stanford’s Center for Innovation in Global Health and John Wong, from the National University of Singapore.
Central to our approach is a forward-facing view of the economic potential for a more age-diverse population in which older adults contribute in significant and measurable ways to the social good and to the GDP, in strong contrast to the outdated assumption that older adults drag down productivity and drain societal resources. Scott, who specializes in longevity and fiscal policy at the London Business School, noted that rising life expectancy coupled with lower birth rates presents real challenges for governments and societies, but that many of those challenges are not as insurmountable as we think, and that we must correct our outdated assumptions around the health and productivity of older adults in order to accurately measure costs and benefits. Scott noted traditional measures of GDP only focus on paid labor and have no way to capture the value of caregiving and volunteer hours that many older adults perform, even though many workers 65 and older were also more active in the workplace than most models assumed. Misguided policies and cultural myths are fed further by the tendency in marketing and media to lump older adults ages 65 to 95 into a single monolithic demographic. In fact, older adults are more diverse than other population segments in terms of health, activities, employment, and financial status.
We tasked ourselves with developing ideas to optimize life across all stages and challenging the assumptions and norms of a conventional life course that have changed little over the past century. Even though human life expectancy has doubled over that same period, the social scripts and norms that guide people through life haven’t budged. The prevailing, outdated model consists of three linear and distinct stages –education, work, and retirement– defined in large part by the roles we play at any given time in our lives.
In this traditional model, people are assumed to trundle from one stage to another, as though on a conveyor belt: a student until their early 20s, a worker until the age of 65, and a retiree in whatever years remain. As we move along, we are assumed to form families, raise the next generation, and acquire assets to be handed off to those behind us once our ride comes to its inevitable end. The conventional model assumes people to be married, and marriage is assumed to provide a financial safety net for the lower or non-earning partner, who is available to watch over children 24/7.
Rather than tacking the longevity dividend we’ve been gifted over the past century onto the end of life – as we have tacitly done – we envision adjusting the conveyor belt to strategically distribute the bonus time throughout all stages of life, so that the benefits can compound for decades.
There is little accounting in the 20th century model for family structures that are different or disrupted, or for the deep, systemic disparities imposed by race, gender, poverty, health, or other factors. There are too few opportunities for altering the set course, for sliding safely off the conveyor belt when circumstances demand, or for gliding back on when circumstances permit, for changes in fortune, health, mind, or heart – the traits and foibles that make us human.
The New Map of Life incorporates multiple, flexible, less linear routes through the roles, opportunities, and obligations that life brings. We envision more on-ramps and off-ramps from the decades of life dedicated to paid work, more opportunities for informal learning and lifelong learning, for intergenerational partnerships that improve the flow of knowledge, support, and care in all directions, as well as ample opportunities for correcting course when the inevitable bumps, curves, and roadblocks knock us off our stride – or changing course for new opportunities.
Rather than tacking the longevity dividend we’ve been gifted over the past century onto the end of life – as we have tacitly done – we envision adjusting the conveyor belt to strategically distribute the bonus time throughout all stages of life, so that the benefits can compound for decades. Adjusting the timing of life’s milestones gives us more time to savor the benefits of childhood, to establish stable pillars for our personal and professional lives during early adulthood, to reset the course as needed or desired during middle age, with the reset contributing in older adulthood to better health, financial security, and more options for feeling engaged and valued at each stage.
Century-long lives can afford children more time to explore, discover, and create – the foundation for healthier, happier, more productive lives. And as children grow to be adolescents, there can be more time for them to test acquired knowledge outside the classroom through gap years or semesters throughout their education. There can be more time for young adults to build and care for their families while also advancing their careers; periods of paid and unpaid work can be interwoven throughout longer lives to accommodate training for career changes, caregiving responsibilities, or health needs. Imagine the potential for a gap year (or years) in midlife to reset for the needs and interests in the upcoming decades. Calibrated in this way, working lives can last decades longer, resulting in better health, greater satisfaction and earning power.
As a result, milestones, expectations, and opportunities will shift. New questions are raised. Is reading by first-grade essential to future learning ability? Must young people graduate from high school by 18 and hurtle across the educational finish line, diploma in hand by their early or mid-20s, to achieve success over a 100-year life? Why not make learning a lifelong process and challenge the assumption that education requires a real or virtual classroom and an instructor? Why should 65-year-old knowledge workers be expected to leave the workplace, just as many achieve peak wisdom? Is a chronological number even the best way to define “age” when science offers so many new tools to measure vitality and health?
It isn’t all about looking fabulous at 50 and windsurfing at 90, although that may be a fine way for some to spend their extra years. It is also about the bottom line. We find powerful evidence that redesigning systems and institutions that enable healthier, more productive, longer lives for all will have measurable, positive economic impacts. If the recovery dollars that were appropriated during the pandemic were strategically invested to address intersecting needs, we could lay the groundwork for a society that is healthier, more equitable, and longevity-ready.
The fact that people are living longer signals neither calamity nor crisis, but rather a profound shift. We only create a crisis by doing nothing, and as the ravages inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic illustrate, the cost of failing to prepare for a known risk –or not preparing adequately – are catastrophic. The benefits of acting early and investing strategically in ways that promote longevity are equally immense in scale, and those choices are outlined in the following chapters. While the phenomenon of steep growth in life expectancies extends to most advanced economies, this report focuses primarily on policies and cultural patterns in the U.S. The concept of the New Map of Life can be applied to other economies and societies, and countries have a great deal to learn from the mistakes and successes of others.
If we make the most of the opportunity that 100-year lives contain, more people can lead longer, healthier lives infused at every stage with a sense of belonging, purpose and worth. To realize that potential though, we must start making changes and we need to start now.