What Happens When We All Live to 100? — A Thoughtful Response from the Halfway Point

Earlier this summer my daughter was asking how old I would be when she was 20, 30, 40, etc.  Once my age broke 100 she started to get concerned.  “But Mommy, I want to live to 100 too, and I want you to still be here.”  So, like all good, over-protective moms, I said, “Then I will live to 138.”  I have since been on a quest to figure out how not to break that promise, knowing full well that I will be lucky to see her 62nd birthday. 

According to the fascinating article by Gregg Easterbrook titled What Happens When We All Live to 100?, it may be a stretch to pull off my promise — but her 62nd birthday is certainly within reach, depending on which side of the bell curve I fall.  Easterbrook  reports that life expectancy at birth has been rising about three months with each passing year. If that trend continues, which by all accounts seems likely, then by the middle of this century life expectancy at birth will be 88, and rise to 100 by the end of the century.  Most interesting is that this rise in life expectancy is not due to any major breakthroughs in medicine or science. 

“It didn’t accelerate much as antibiotics and vaccines became common.  Nor did it retreat much during wars or disease outbreaks.  A graph of global life expectancy over time looks like an escalator rising smoothly.” – Gregg Easterbrook

So my quest begins.  Look both ways before crossing, lay off caffeine and high fructose corn syrup, drink red wine, relax and have fun.  But quantity of life is only half the battle.  I only want to live to 100 if I can still laugh with my daughter, challenge her beautiful mind, and have her challenge mine.  I want to be regarded by her children and her grandchildren as a relevant, wise, and wonderful part of the family.  I want to be a treasure, not a train wreck.  I want to depend on her and her family only for their dependence on me and what I bring to the family.    

So my answer to the question, what happens when we all live to 100? is uh-oh — unless we all start taking action now to figure out how to extend the quality of life along with the quantity of it.  And just as the positive results in longevity were independent of any single event, specific drug, or scientific breakthrough, nor will the quality of a long life depend on any single factor. 

What creates quality of life?  I believe it is primarily these two things:  social connectedness and play. 

Social Connectedness

 “When Teenage Meets Old Age”—The Living Channel in New Zealand explores intergenerational care and play in hopes of changing the way the young and old think about each other.Amidst all the science and analysis on our physical health in this article, I was pleased to see the role of relationships mentioned — the notion that how our homes, families, and friendships are organized may have just as much impact on quality of life as our physical health.  I would add that the power of community must be considered — our towns, our neighbors, and our roles.  The “inner circle” of  feeling connected is connections to family, then friends — but it doesn’t stop there.  Feeling connected means being a relevant and valued part of a community as well, be it your street, your neighborhood, your town, state, country, or the world.  If we are relying solely on our closest relationships for fulfillment, we are potentially creating dependencies that could (most likely will) backfire.

One thing the article didn’t mention specifically is that, according to a University of Chicago study, feeling extreme loneliness can increase an older person’s chances of premature death by 14 percent.

“Chronic loneliness is a health risk factor comparable to smoking, obesity and lack of exercise, and contributes to a suppressed immune system, high blood pressure, and increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol.” –  Health Innovation Frontiers, AARP, May 2013

None of the scientific advances mentioned in Easterbrook’s article heal broken hearts when a spouse of 50+ years dies, or the family moves away.   And loneliness doesn’t only happen to those who are alone.  Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco found that more than 62 percent of the people aged 60 and over reporting loneliness were still married.  It’s so critical to find ways that the power of community can help ease these feelings of isolation and create connectedness with the outside world.  Yet our current community infrastructure is such that the aging are somewhat segregated, rather than being integrated into the community conversation.

Some of it makes sense…find our “peeps”and build bonds based on shared interests and life stages — Silver Sneakers exercise classes, senior citizen blogs, organized trips for seniors.  But just as the work environment naturally creates a cross-fertilization of generations, fostering diagonal thinking and healthy debate based on divergent values, so should retirement.  What can organizations and communities do to create these opportunities for intergenerational intersections after retirement?   How can schools and communities come together in more inclusionary ways to help keep the aging vibrant and develop wisdom in the young?


The article suggests a downshifting of sorts as it relates to retirement., vs. a toggle switch from “working” to “not working” — a world where banks consider second-half-of-life small loans for starting home-based businesses, or where costly insurance plans for employees over 65 go away so seniors become more attractive to employers and more.  I love this idea because the beauty of work is that it is an opportunity for grown-ups to “play” during the day.  If we choose our work wisely, we have opportunities to explore our curiosities and interests, experiment with new ideas, challenge ourselves and others, win and lose, only to learn from it and try all over again.  Sound familiar?  That’s because it’s been happening to us on the playground since we were children.  

How can we create even more conditions for play, experimentation, discovery, and debate in the lives of seniors?  We can reimagine business models for senior centers, making them less institutional — places where we send our elders to do old-people stuff — and more participatory.  Imagine senior centers that engage seniors in the co-creation of events, work opportunities, and entrepreneurial community endeavors.  More than just providing activities that seniors “consume,” how can we work together with our seniors to CREATE activities, thus building culture, inclusiveness, and wisdom into our communities?    

Finally, I love the point Easterbrook makes about the neurological evidence that shows parts of the brain associated with reward-seeking light up less as time goes on — because on the whole, older people don’t desire acquisitions as much as the young and middle-aged do.  He comments that this may serve as a “counterweight to materialism.”  It’s a lovely thought, but I wonder how much this phenomenon will hold true when the Boomers, notoriously hailed as the most self-indulgent generation, hit their 70s and 80s? 

Even if it does hold true, as a marketer I can’t help but see this as an opportunity to create products and services that unite the aging with their grandchildren.  I am not a scientist and have not seen the study, but I would venture to guess that the part of the brain associated with joy would light up like the Fourth of July when grandparents enjoy a playful or educational moment with their grandchildren, or watch their grandchildren enjoy a product they purchased for them.    

The article also points out the potential impact on our economy if lifespan increases.  But if health span increases along with life span, surely as the author mentions, our aging population may work longer, keeping pension and healthcare subsidies under control.  What is not mentioned is that this will also fuel their already-prolific purchasing power. According to an article in Forbes, Boomers, who hold 70 percent of U.S. disposable income, spend about $35 billion annually on their grandchildren, and the “spending-on-grandchildren” market has not even been aggressively targeted yet.

In summary, living to 100 sounds all well and good, and I hope it happens to me, but is it really about how many years we live, or how alive we are during those years?  For me it’s the latter.  I want a socially vibrant, playful life no matter how long or short.  And the more we as innovators, developers, business and community leaders start to reimagine how our products, services, and community constructs can deliver that goal, the more I look forward to it without fear or hesitation, regardless of the end number.   

But I may from time to time check in on the progress of rapamycin.

@leighcappello #getmesomerapamycin

Drawing credit:  Katie Cappello.  Apparently the face appendages are 'dangly skin'.  Let's hope not.

Photo credit:  “When Teenage Meets Old Age”—The Living Channel in New Zealand explores intergenerational care and play in hopes of changing the way the young and old think about each other.



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