Assuming you are a typical American, you are about 2 inches taller than your great-grandparents were at the same age even though you are genetically no heartier than your ancestors were 10,000 years ago. You are stronger, healthier, smarter and living an average of 30 years longer than Americans were at the turn of the last century. That's because scientists, educators and activists in the 20th century changed culture, the crucible that holds science, technology and large-scale changes in behavior. We are living longer because the food supply is steady and debilitating diseases are prevented before they ever occur. Improved sanitation reduces the spread of contagious diseases, and education is available to all school-age children. Information flows ubiquitously from written and electronic sources.
In order to make good use of these added years, we need to change culture again, just as radically as our ancestors did. We need to invest in science and technology because we've only begun to solve the problems faced by people who are living longer.
And we need to change the way we live. We mustn't hold on too tightly to old scripts that evolved to guide us through lives half as long. Instead, we can begin to ask what added years of life offer. We could create an entirely new stage in life, an encore stage — as my friend and colleague Marc Freedman maintains in his book The Big Shift — that we use to pursue meaningful work that improves society. Or we could stretch out all stages of life, making not only old age, but childhood, adolescence and middle age longer, too.
Rest assured, the demographic changes that are now under way will change virtually every aspect of life. Our task is to thoughtfully and proactively redesign it. What should life scripts look like when most people spend as many years as "old people" as they do rearing children? How should families operate when there are four or five generations of a family alive at the same time? How should societies work when more people are over 60 than under 15?
The actions of today's generations of older people will set the course for decades. Change will happen, one person at a time. So as you begin a new year, envision the steps — small or large — you can take to ensure a long, bright future.
Invest in yourself by learning something new. Design your world so that healthy habits come naturally. Diversify your social network by befriending a person from a different generation. Start a business that puts others to work. Think creatively about ways that an unprecedented number of mature, talented, healthy adults can address society's great challenges. Then take a first step to ensure that the big challenges will be addressed. Imagine: If every person over 50 makes a single contribution, the world could be improved immeasurably.
Note that social science is clear: People are happiest when they feel embedded in something larger than themselves and when they are needed. Let's demonstrate that older societies are better societies for every age on the planet.
Also of interest: Changing gears for a later-in-life career. >>
Laura L. Carstensen is the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity and the author of A Long Bright Future.