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Why Your Career Path Should Have No End

Life expectancy is ballooning, but really, who’s paying attention? I wasn’t, and the results were a transition that could have been better navigated.  Entering my third act of life, I ended up confused in a swamp land of outdated information, no great “how-to” bestseller as a guide and social benchmarks that just didn’t fit anymore.

No inspiration for living the second half of life? Reading about  a grey-bearded mid-lifer who decided to circle the earth by bike and rowboat or a 57-year-old Brit named Rosie who completed an epic run around the world wore me out.  I laud them for their efforts to inspire, but I’d launched a previous transition into an energetic and meaningful phase of life and work by taking sabbatical to sail a little boat alone with my daughter for six months … so I had done that physical challenge business.

Despite my solid credentials in human development and vociferous reading on living one’s best life, I tottered into my mid 60’s underwhelmed and confused about my future work and life.

What should life look like for me? What am I going to do? Should the bucket list rule? Phase out work? Is volunteering in Ecuador a good option? And nagging at me was this “longevity revolution” I was reading about. Did that hold answers?

In the new life stage in front of me, my age and working identity set the tone. Having less time to live a life makes a difference. With a successful professional life, blessed with good health and no financial wolves at the door, it feels a privilege to enter the kingdom of the second half of life. But, as in other endeavors, I wanted to do this very well. If there was a yellow brick road to longevity, happiness and well-being, I wanted to be on it.

Mid-lifers racing to the future take heed. There’s a very good chance that much of what you think you know about aging is wrong. Hell bent on being fantastic parents and in hard pursuit of career success, the average 40 or 50 year-old likely still thinks there’s a finish line up the road – that day in his/her late 60s when the call comes for work life to slow and real life to begin. What’s wild about this outdated, American model of retirement is that it’s one hazy fantasy.

In light of the longevity revolution, which will add an extra 30 years to one’s life, 80 would be the appropriate age for that retirement call, according to Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center for Longevity . In her book, “A Long Bright Future” that’s the only idea that makes sense.

All generations will be affected by this new longevity.  Yes, the young will reap benefits, but “people attempting forty-year retirements are bad for the economy and not good for anyone, especially for retirees,” states Carstensen.

So welcome to your super-sized life. Here are two truths I wish I had been better acquainted with:

1. We are clueless about our own life expectancy.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about life expectancy is that half of all people live beyond it.  If you’re married, the math changes considerably. Since two lives are involved, there’s an even greater chance at least one of you will live to a very advanced age. In fact, for a 65-year-old married couple, there’s a:

  • 92% chance at least one spouse will live to age 80.
  • 57% chance one spouse will live to age 90.
  • 11% chance one spouse will live to age 100.

Live expectancy in the US – age 83 for men and age 86 for women – is an “average” and perhaps not the best exit number to bank on when designing the second half of your life.  Using this long version of the University of Penn Longevity Calculator, my life expectancy is 96.9 which puts a different spin on things.

I’m not alone in underestimating life expectancy. Approximately four in 10 respondents (43% of retirees and 38% of pre-retirees) underestimate average life expectancy by five year or more. Another two in 10 underestimate it by two to four years.

One way to shock yourself into a better understanding of the longevity revolution comes from a suggestion in Carstensen’s book:  Take a peek inside one of those pre-school classrooms for 3-year-olds.  Half of them are expected to live to be centenarians.

2. Careers should never end.

If you “want” to live longer and elevate your well-being, extend your working life.

In meetings interviewing potential financial planners, I was asked, “How long do you intend to work?”  “Until I’m 65 or so,” I replied.  Why did I choose that particular age? Why didn’t I say 80 or 90?

Truth is that most of us are breezing past 80, 90 and beyond. And if they choose to, they can whistle while they work. 88% of those in the 65-74 range are healthy enough for work.  60% of those over age 85 – the majority- do not have health problems that would preclude work.

“It wasn’t the happiest or the most relaxed older participants who lived the longest,” the authors of the new book, “The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study” (Hudson Street Press, March 2011).” It was those who were most engaged in pursuing their goals.”

Work is a prelude to making life not just longer than your laid-back comrades, but healthier.

Long life has appeared suddenly –a goodly number of  years tacked on at the end, unretirement is common, mindsets stuck in old social constructs, the future blurred – and bad decisions ensue.

For instance, I wonder if the partners in the CPA firm who refuse to go on their mandatory, paid sabbatical  are thinking of a late life stage that includes extending their work? (Yes, your boss called us about you.) Rethinking the longevity of their careers might lead them to an understanding that those four weeks could reap benefits of clarity and rejuvenation for the many more years to come.

Bequeathed this remarkable gift of a long life, I make my way in a radically altered society that is just beginning to dawn.  I’m doing well, re-kindling creativity and making a plan for life to last far longer than any prior generation in human history.  I think of it as a pretty cool life stage.

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