The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 20, 2016

Exploring opportunities for well-being, from baby boomers to millennials

June 20, 2016

People are living longer lives than ever before. Some predict that the majority of children born after 2000 will live to age 100 or more. But will our longer lives be better lives? Are we, as individuals and society, preparing to live our longer lives well? And is the opportunity to live a longer, better life equally available to everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, or income?

Not yet. Our work lives, our social programs, and our individual choices reflect demographic patterns of half a century ago—a time when the average life span was much shorter than it is now. 

It's time to evolve. 

A new collaboration between the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Urban Institute aims to pursue longevity, not just by influencing the later years, but by changing how we live at every stage of life.

The Stanford Center on Longevity has produced The Sightlines Project, which suggests our framework, three areas critical for well-being with longevity: financial security, physical health, and social engagement. The Urban Institute brings to this partnership deep expertise in how policy can change outcomes across these dimensions for diverse populations. Together, we will move beyond a conversation about aging that pits old people against young people to a conversation about longevity that affects all of us at all ages. 

The two institutions laid the groundwork for that shift last week at Urban, when experts and influencers from across sectors met to discuss the public and private choices that affect well-being at older ages—especially for people of color and people of low and modest incomes.

The issues at hand are many, and they begin long before people get "old." In Sightlines, the Stanford team found that young people ages 25 to 34 today have more debt than 15 years ago, and fewer of them are opening retirement accounts. As Urban's Ellen Seidman and Diana Elliott point out, retirement-aged Americans in 2013 had just $17,000 in retirement savings, half of what people of the same age had in 2007. Our young people have more debt and they're saving less, yet their retirement savings must last them longer because they're living longer.

The problem is worse for families with lower incomes. Signe-Mary McKernan, director of the Opportunity and Ownership initiative at Urban, pointed out Tuesday that lower-income families are often left out of federal policies that encourage saving and often face disincentives to saving.

"SNAP and TANF are programs designed mostly to keep people afloat today," she said. "They don't help people save." 

Financial insecurity that starts early and bleeds into old age doesn't just affect individuals, either. It is, instead, a drag on the whole economy, according to Council of Economic Advisers Chair Jason Furman. 

"Encouraging saving, with things like automatic enrollment in a retirement plan, will not only help people, but it will help overall global growth, which in turn will help the same people," he said. 

Though the share of older workers in the labor force has surged, it has not kept up with health gains, nor has it benefitted everyone equally. While 95 percent of prime-age men with college degrees are currently employed, only 80 percent of men the same age without college degrees are working. Inequality in who works leads to inequality in income and, ultimately, inequality in longevity.

The changing nature of work will also affect well-being in longer life. We need to better understand older adults’ role in the future workplace and the impact of new-economy jobs on their retirement. Diana Farrell, Urban trustee and CEO of the JPMorgan Chase Institute, proposed a complete overhaul of the way we think about work—not just for older workers, but for everyone. 

"I don't think we get there with tweaks," she said. "I think there's some really fundamental rethinking of the workplace, of education, of work arrangements, and of when people work that needs to happen."

In rethinking our work lives, we should also consider broadening the definition of productivity to include volunteering, said Urban trustee Jack Rowe of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, who is also the founding chair of the Longevity Center Advisory Council. Volunteering can both increase social engagement and improve health.

“Imagine a world where the doctor asks you, ‘Do you smoke, do you drink, do you volunteer?’” Rowe said.

But an overhaul of our relationship with work also requires a rethinking of benefits programs, insurance, and retirement funds. People have historically depended on jobs for benefits. What happens to those protections when work is more variable? And finally, there's the issue of what happens when people do retire. Will Social Security be enough? Will they have a family caregiver, and will we protect those caregivers from economic and health losses that undermine their own successful longevity?

It’s critical we start this conversation now. As Rowe said Tuesday, "What's failure going to look like? What if we don't adapt the core institutions of our society for this demographic transformation? We're going to risk increasing tension between the haves and the have-nots, and we will fail to benefit from the tremendous wisdom and capacity from this increasingly large population."

We can avoid failure by shifting our focus from “aging” to “longevity.” Our policy choices should not be about whether to help older people at the expense of children, or vice versa. Rather, we should build an evidence-based policy agenda that enables people at every stage of life to live better as well as longer lives.

Panelists Signe-Mary McKernan (left), Richard Johnson, and Laura Carstensen speak at the event "Rethinking the Future: The Opportunities of Longevity" at the Urban Institute on June 14, 2016. Photo by Lydia Thompson/Urban Institute 

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