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When Living to 100 Is the New Normal

AARP forum experts discuss how we can live our best lives as they grow longer

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins

Forbes/Johnny Wolf

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins tells the audience at the "Disrupt Aging: Implications of Living 100" forum that longevity demands that we “replace outdated models.”

The life expectancy for Americans in 1950 was 68; today the average 10-year-old has a 50 percent chance of living to 104. So what will it mean for society when it becomes commonplace to live to 100? And how should that longevity affect how we live and think about everything from retirement and our financial lives to health and lifetime wellness? 

Those were among the themes considered by a variety of experts brought together by AARP on April 12 in Washington, D.C., for “Disrupt Aging: Implications of Living 100”,  a forum for some 400 attendees, including business leaders, health professionals and entrepreneurs. What they heard from speakers such as personal finance guru Suze Orman, journalist Ann Curry and best-selling author Cheryl Strayed was the importance of cultivating close relationships, continuing to learn and making retirement savings last.   

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, author of the best-seller Disrupt Aging, told the crowd that longevity demands that we “replace outdated models,” including the traditional linear life path of going to school, spending years at work and then retiring. “What if colleges and universities offered lifetime subscriptions? What if we didn’t have the word retirement? How would we live our lives differently?” Jenkins asked.

Dave Evans, cofounder of Stanford Life Design Lab, said that a long, healthy life should be powered by curiosity. "Everybody should go back to school," Evans said, "but you should go back to You U,” meaning self-driven education. “Get curious; talk to people; try stuff; tell your story,” Evans said.

Not surprisingly, Orman, whose many books on personal finance include The Road To Wealth, offered the most practical, tough-love message of the day: Now is the time to start building wealth. “Money alone will never make you happy,” she said, “but lack of money will make you miserable.”

Strayed, author of the best-selling memoir Wild, emphasized that authentic connection is especially crucial as people age and tend to retreat from the world. It can be scary to express your truest self in public, she said, as she herself did in Wild, but “allowing people to actually know you, and risking that they might reject you, leads to a deepening of our relationships… that’s vital as we grow older.” 

Curry also said she knows it can be hard to make social connections. “I have a deeply shy side,” admitted the former Today coanchor, but “get in there” and “reach out with kindness.”

Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, M.D., poignantly articulated a similar message. He said that he remembers feeling deeply lonely as a child and that in his role as surgeon general he “saw a lot of emotional pain.” Murthy said he now believes strongly that loving relationships are inextricably tied to health and well-being. People who are lonely have shorter lives, he observed — “a mortality impact that’s equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” 

Debra Whitman, AARP's chief public policy officer, sounded an emotional note, growing tearful as she described her husband’s recent health scare. She said it reminded her and her family how precious life is, whatever its length. “It’s about the living, not the 100,” Whitman said. “We have to plan for 100 — but we really need to live for today.” 

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