New lease on life

You are here

New lease on life

Longevity offers chance to reorganize typical life stages through extended careers

by Christin L. Munsch on Monday, November 26, 2012 - 9:30am

Laura CarstensenBy 2030, the number of people age 65 years or older is expected to double, placing a strain on government-sponsored programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Many researchers see the aging of the American population as a crisis on the horizon.

It may be surprising, then, to hear that psychologist and public policy scholar Laura L. Carstensen believes that longevity may in fact be beneficial to society and the answer to another of America’s biggest problems: work-life balance. "There are indeed many problems we need to solve," Carstensen admits, "but added years of life are an extraordinary opportunity to improve quality of life at all ages. We have more time to pursue our dreams, realize our goals, be with our friends and families.”

In a recent talk sponsored by the Clayman Institute, Carstensen urged a Stanford audience to rethink not only how Americans spend their senior years but also how we organize our entire adult lives. As detailed in her new book, "A Long Bright Future," Carstensen advocates extending the total number of years Americans spend in the labor force, easing into work in the beginning and easing out of work at the end.

Carstensen's plan could have big implications for family life. According to the Center for American Progress, over 90 percent of employees report work-family conflict. Employees work long hours, have little control over their work, and receive insufficient support from supervisors and colleagues. This, in combination with family and personal obligations, leaves workers frenetic and exhausted—especially women, who often assume a disproportionate share of housework and child care duties.

An extra 30 years

"We’ve been given a remarkable gift with no strings attached: an extra 30 years of life for the average person. We don’t have to pack everything into the beginning."

“We’ve been given a remarkable gift with no strings attached: an extra 30 years of life for the average person,” says Carstensen. “We don’t have to pack everything into the beginning.”

For most of human history, Carstensen explains, life expectancy was between 18 and 20 years. That number crept upward over time, hitting the mid-30s in the nineteenth century. Then, due to inoculation against disease, sustainable agriculture, and systematic waste disposal, humans suddenly started living much, much longer. Today, the average life expectancy is 78 and climbing.

“Because long life appeared so suddenly,” argues Carstensen, “we lack new social benchmarks that tell us when to get an education, marry, work and retire.”

Carstensen’s idea? A reorganization of the current life stages. After all, she notes, with increasingly longer lives, retirement is the only life stage that has been elongated. Currently, people go to school, enter the workforce, and find a mate at a relatively young age, often starting families in their mid-twenties. As a result, many people reach the peak of their careers while raising young children and sometimes supporting older relatives. During this stage of life, they work long hours and are the most stressed. Then, at age 65, workers retire and are finally able to pursue leisure activities. Carstensen believes that this approach is outdated. “This model was built for short lives, not long ones,” she says. “It makes no sense to cram all of the work into the beginning and all of the relaxation into the end.”

Rethinking career maps

Scholars of the modern workplace have advocated rethinking traditional career trajectories. Where workplace advancement has traditionally been thought of as a "ladder," some scholars and companies are experimenting with "career lattices." Under a lattice model, workers could ramp up or ramp down their engagement in the workplace, to better accommodate the demands of their family or personal lives—all without stepping off the path to career advancement and promotion. For example, workers with childcare or elder care responsibilities might choose to work part-time, whereas workers at other life stages might choose longer hours.

Laura CarstensenCarstensen agrees with these scholars—and she adds an additional piece to the puzzle. Longevity, she explains, gives workers a chance to retire at a later age.

Carstensen recommends that Americans work longer but at a more moderate pace. Adolescents and young adults could spend a few more years pursuing an education, traveling, and trying out different careers. They could ease into the workforce and opt for flexible and part-time work during the years they are completing their educations, finding the right career, or caring for young children. Full-time work would peak between the ages of 50 and 80, and older workers would ease back out of the workforce just as gradually.

This new approach to mapping careers, says Carstensen, is for everyone, not just mothers. Although the burden of balancing work and family has historically fallen more heavily on mothers than fathers, Carstensen argues that easing into careers would remove the stigma from part-time work. “If we change work and make flexible work something men and women can access when they have children, men will get involved. Men like to spend time with families too.” Work and family would be spread throughout all of life’s stages, as would education and leisure.

Work and family would be spread throughout all of life’s stages, as would education and leisure.

Implementing Carstensen's plan

Carstensen is not suggesting that we force seniors, or anyone else, to remain in the labor market. Rather, she advocates providing financial incentives—in the form of larger Social Security checks—to those who stay in the labor force longer. Meanwhile, Carstensen's program would strengthen the long-term viability of the Social Security system by increasing the size of the workforce such that more people would pay in and fewer people would draw benefits. Currently, retirees can receive greater Social Security benefits by delaying their start date, but this benefit increase is truncated at age 70. Carstensen reasons that if Social Security benefits increased with time, only supplementing income as people phased out of work, there would be enough funds to fully support the very old and to finance assisted-living environments as needed.

The model that Carstensen proposes—one in which employees ease into and out of the workforce—seems to contrast with the current workplace climate. But Carstensen believes that change should begin within organizations and that they could reap big benefits. “Employers will come to need experienced workers and in order to lure them in they'll make accommodations," she says. Part-time work could also be instrumental in improving engagement and retention for employees with families. According to Carstensen, "smart entrepreneurs who offer family friendly flexible work will benefit enormously from the talent they can attract.”

The next step? In 2014, Carstensen is convening a research group at the Stanford Center on Longevity around issues of workplace flexibility and life stages. Academic experts, business leaders, and policymakers will talk about the challenges and opportunities of an aging population and will develop workable solutions for redesigning long life.




  • More than 90 percent of employees – both men and women – report work-family conflict, according to the Center for American Progress
  • For most of human history, life expectancy was between 18 and 20 years. Today, the average life expectancy is 78


A Long Bright Future book coverLaura L. Carstensen is the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, the Fairleigh S. Dickinson Jr. Professor in Public Policy, and a professor of psychology. She is a former Clayman Institute Director and spoke as part of the Clayman Institute's 2012-13 series, "Beyond the Stalled Gender Revolution:  Advancing Gender Equality in Workplaces, Families, and Society." For more than twenty years, Carstensen's research has been supported by the National Institute on Aging, and she has published over 100 articles on life-span development. She is the author of "A Long Bright Future: An Action Plan for a Lifetime of Happiness, Health, and Financial Security."



Post doctoral fellow Christin Munsch

Christin L. Munsch is a postdoctoral fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. She is a sociologist, a member of the Clayman Institute’s working group on Redesigning and Redefining Work, and a member of the student writing team.



For further reading: While workplaces and work maps can be redesigned, employers should also learn about their potential downside. Read this article: New ways of working, same old gender inequality.