Longevity Is for the Young, Too

Signs emerge that we are starting to use our longer life spans to expand earlier stages of life.

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Longevity has been one of the great success stories of the past few decades. Miracle drugs, better healthcare, and improved lifestyles have combined to add many years to average life spans. For people who take good care of themselves and do not have adverse family health histories, living well into their 90s is held out as the norm, not the exception.

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Some of the attention on longevity has been precautionary. The financial services industry, for example, has been beating the drum to raise concerns that people will live so long that they will risk running out of money before they die. Of course, investment firms are more than happy to help people map out better retirement programs.

There also have been concerns that an aging society will tax Social Security and Medicare. Living longer has also been associated with enduring longer periods of coping with chronic illnesses (especially Alzheimer's) and an extended stage of frailty.

But the longevity story is mostly positive. And as gains in life spans have moved from being oddities to mainstream expectations, they are helping to trigger reassessments of how people should be using their "extra" years.

An assumption that the benefit of longer lives will consist simply of longer retirements and added years on the sidelines of life is being joined, and in some cases supplanted, by the notion that many of these years can be used to expand and enrich earlier stages of life.

Younger Americans are taking longer to hit major developmental milestones—more time to complete college, longer periods to settle down, and later ages for marriage and parenthood. The tough economy is responsible for some of these extended paths, but these are longer-term trends as well.

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Sociologist Eric Klinenberg recently wrote Going Solo, a book about the growing numbers of Americans of all ages who are choosing to live alone. "The Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld argues that middle-class people in their twenties and thirties now look forward to a 'second adolescence.'" Klinenberg writes, "in which they seek out new experiences—from serial dating to interracial and same-sex relationships—and refrain from commitment unless they find their 'true romantic love.'"

The U.S. Census Bureau says the age of a person's first marriage is now the highest since records began in the 19th century: 28.7 years for men in 2011, and 26.5 years for women, on average.

The median age at which women have their first child was above 25 for the first decade of the 21st century, the Census Bureau reported. But this median obscures some divergent trends. Married couples with college degrees are holding off on marriage and parenthood even longer. Further, career women are often deciding to wait until they've solidly established their positions before deciding to have children. Accordingly, the number of women having babies while in their late 30s and 40s has been rising steadily.

While many younger people are allowing their developmental timetables to stretch out, there is mostly anecdotal research that they have done so because of any heightened awareness of extended life spans. However, there is stronger evidence that older Americans are very conscious that the clock may end up ticking a lot longer for them.

More and more older employees are keeping their jobs and staying in the workforce. While the recession gets much credit for this trend, it predates the downturn. For financial and lifestyle reasons, people have been deferring traditional retirements in growing numbers for years.

The percentage of Americans in the workforce who are age 55 or older "has been rising steadily since 1993, when it stood at 29.4 percent," the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) recently reported. This group's labor-force participation rate reached 40.2 percent in 2010 and stayed there in 2011.

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"For men age 55 and older, the labor force participation rate grew from 1975 to 2010, before flattening out or slightly decreasing to 46.3 percent," EBRI said. "Among women age 55 and older, the labor force participation rate grew from 22.8 percent in 1993 to 35.1 percent in 2010, its highest level, where it remained in 2011."

These high rates are also linked with rising numbers of older people who not only continue to work but have decided to reinvent their professional lives while in their 60s and 70s. Marc Freedman, founder of Civic Ventures and its employment offshoot, Encore Careers, makes a compelling case that we are in the process of creating a new stage of life between middle age and old age.

Sociologist Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity and author of A Long Bright Future, has championed adding years to earlier stages of life. People face stressful and regretful time deficits at some earlier stages of life, she notes. Early career development and parenthood come to mind as stages where we'd all like more time. In our later years, however, some people have so much extra time that it can amount to too much of a good thing, leading to boredom and loneliness.

Wouldn't it be nice, Carstensen says, if we could "exchange speeding through life for a chance to enjoy the journey."

Twitter: @PhilMoeller