After a while, I lost track of how many articles I read during my twenties about how Millennials “refuse to grow up.” We were putting off marriage, not buying our first homes, not having kids, and not settling down in our careers, the trope went, because we were in a state of “extended adolescence.” (Somehow, most of these screeds never mentioned the student debt, higher educational requirements for today’s careers, the high cost of child care, or the unattainable cost of first homes in most major cities that many of us faced…).
Now, research from Stanford offers a new way of thinking about the “extended adolescence” debate. What if what we were doing, in part, was refashioning life to reflect expectations of a longer life span?
As the researchers point out in an article in the Washington Post:
“Thirty years were added to average life expectancy in the 20th century, and rather than imagine the scores of ways we could use these years to improve quality of life, we tacked them all on at the end. Only old age got longer.”
To remedy this, Laura Carstensen, a professor of psychology and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, argues that we need a “cultural rethinking” about the traditional stages of life. We need to stop thinking in terms of education > career > marriage > kids > retirement > old age, and think instead about a life in which education, relationships, generativity, and one’s vocation are lifelong and in flow. What if education never ceases? What if our careers are verbs — thing we’re trying to accomplish or differences we’re trying to make — instead of just nouns or titles we wear? What if relationship building doesn’t need to end after college or grad school or meeting one’s spouse; what if we’re forging new relationships throughout life including in our golden years?
This may sound like academic gobbledygook, but what I like about the idea is that by “redesigning life” so we no longer culturally think of it as essentially ending at 65, with the end of one’s professional career, we open up decades of life to the encouragement of additional creativity, contribution, and meaning.
The period from 65 to 85 is no longer the one of decrepitude we still culturally consider it. People start second careers, take on new roles in their families and community, travel and explore, finish that creative project they always wanted to pursue, and more. Given the myriad problems we face as a consequence of the digital revolution — the loneliness epidemic, social dislocation, community dissolution, and more — this makes me wonder: what if part of the answer lies in asking those who have stepped back from professional life to step forward into the local public square? Instead of thinking that older individuals are better let out to pasture, what if we recognized that 60-70 is hardly “old,” that with experience comes relationships and wisdom, and asked these people to lend their experience to strengthening and rebuilding community life?
I think that’s the final thing I really liked about the article: the idea that by redesigning life so it’s defined by more than just one’s professional career, we can open up a richer understanding of what makes people people, and what makes life worth living. We create cultural space to measure success not just based on one’s professional accomplishments, but that plus one’s community contributions.
At least for this Millennial, that would be a welcome ideal.