The Futurist

July 1, 2005


Ageless aging: the next era of retirement; "Old age" and "retirement" must be rethought and redefined as the baby boomers surge through the later stages of life, according to a renowned authority on aging.

By Ken Dychtwald

With the breakthroughs in medicine, public health, nutrition, and wellness in recent years, longevity has been steadily increasing. So what age should now be considered old?

Let's remember that the age selected to be the marker of old age was not sent from heaven or scripted in Moses' tablets. It was selected in the 1880s by Otto von Bismarck, who crafted Europe's first pension plan. Bismarck had to pick an age at which people would be considered too enfeebled to work and therefore eligible for state support and entitlement. He picked 65. At the time, the life expectancy in Europe and the United States was only 45 years. Now, life expectancy at birth for women has vaulted to nearly 80 and for men to about 74. In fact, if you were to craft a formula using a corresponding equation today, we would be retiring people at about 97. So to continue to use 65 as the marker of old age simply does not make any sense at all.

One misconception that people have about longevity is that it means more years added to the end of life. Few people would say, "If I could live longer, what I'd really like is to be old for twice as long." Rather, most people would say, "If I could live a little bit longer, I'd like to have a chance to reinvent myself. I'd like to have a chance to pursue some dreams that I might have put on the shelf when I was younger. I'd like to adjust the balance between work, leisure, and family, with the benefit of the kind of wisdom and experience that comes from having tried a few things out in the first half of my life." People don't want to be old longer. They want to be young and middle-aged longer. And many would prefer to live long, healthy lives without being any particular age at all, reflecting a new kind of ageless aging.


The Longevity Revolution: We've Only Just Begun

During the twentieth century, we did an excellent job of eliminating many of the diseases of youth, such as cholera, typhoid, smallpox, diphtheria, and pneumonia. Childbirth, once a major cause of premature death, has become safer for most women, and more children are born healthier. The effect of these improvements is that more of us are living longer and longer.

Extraordinary advances are still ahead. The maximum biological potential age of the human body is somewhere between 120 and 140 years, so with significant breakthroughs in the next quarter century--whether they be in pharmaceuticals, hormone therapy, therapeutic cloning, or stem-cell research--we could add another five, 10, or even 20 years to a person's life.

The downside, of course, is that chronic health problems will also increase. We're living longer but not necessarily staying healthy longer. Unfortunately, 59 million Americans have one form or another of heart disease. Two-thirds of the American population is overweight. Up to 50 million people struggle with chronic pain due to conditions like arthritis and bursitis. There are about 18 million people with either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. These lifestyle-related chronic diseases have become the modern plagues.

In an ancient Greek fable, Eos, the beautiful goddess of the dawn, falls in love with the warrior Tithonus. Distraught over his mortality, she goes to Zeus's chamber and begs Zeus to grant her lover immortality. "Are you certain that is what you want for him?" Zeus challenges. "Yes," Eos responds. As Eos leaves Zeus's chamber, she realizes in shock that she forgot to ask that Tithonus also remain eternally young and healthy. With each passing year, she looks on with horror as he grows older and sicker. His skin withers and becomes cancerous. His organs rot, and his brain grows feeble. Ultimately, the once-proud warrior is reduced to a collection of pained, foul, and broken bones--but he continues to live forever.


The story of Tithonus is a fitting allegory for what is occurring in the U.S. health-care system today. While we have eliminated many of the childhood diseases that took our ancestors' lives, the health-care system is woefully inept at preventing or treating the chronic health problems that arise in life's later years. Age-related chronic conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, prostate and breast cancer, and heart disease are reaching pandemic proportions.

The most troublesome challenges ahead, however, could be due to the rising incidence of the diseases among the oldest of the old. Although some of today's over-85 population are fit and independent, 62.5% are so disabled that they are no longer able to manage the basic activities of daily living without help. Currently, 47% of people over age 85 suffer from some form of dementia--a condition that already afflicts 4 million Americans.

Impacts of the Wellness Movement

Having participated in promoting the wellness movement since its beginnings 30 years ago, I am convinced that we could all be doing a much better job of both lowering health-care costs and creating a much healthier, more vital, independent life by practicing better health habits. With each birthday, the body struggles with a wider range of problems. For example, I am 55. I am a relatively healthy and fit person, but I've got a right shoulder that's troubled with bone spurs and arthritis. And even though I haven't eaten meat for about 25 years, I have high cholesterol that I grapple with. I also find that it's a little easier to gain weight now than when I was younger, so I'm always trying to keep an eye out for my calorie consumption. So even though I am still a youthful, healthy person, each birthday brings on more challenges to work against on a day-to-day basis.

When we're young, we tend to take our health for granted. When we're in our 40s or 50s, we begin to notice that there are some changes going on and we start to take them much more seriously. And as we look at our own moms and dads, we can see both the positive and the negative outcomes of how well or how badly they have taken care of themselves. As we grow a little bit older, the desire to be healthy, attractive, and potent doesn't diminish, but it becomes harder to stay well and to look youthful. These are very powerful motivations. You wouldn't expect your car to function well if you didn't take care of it. You wouldn't expect your clothes to look good if you didn't take good care of them. You wouldn't expect your computer to work well if you didn't maintain it the way it needs to be maintained. More people now realize that, to be healthy, look healthy, feel healthy, and have wellness prevalent in their lives as they age, they need to take charge of their wellness and practice the kinds of behaviors that will get them there.

As they age, baby boomers are likely to continue setting new trends in the United States. In my new book, The Power Years, I argue that, instead of viewing life after 40 as a time of decline, retreat, and withdrawal, boomers are coming to see this as a terrific new opportunity to reevaluate their lives and consider their new options. They will be empowered by a great deal more experience and wisdom and will plot new courses. Instead of limitation, I believe they'll choose liberation--it's their nature. Boomers are collectively reshaping the middle years of life into a new period for renewal and reinvention. "Middlescence"--an older and wiser version of adolescence--is emerging.

History provides us many role models for successful aging. Grandma Moses didn't start painting until she was almost 80. Galileo published his masterpiece, Dialogue Concerning the Two New Sciences, at 74. Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Guggenheim Museum in New York at 91. Mahatma Gandhi was 72 when he completed successful negotiations with Britain for India's independence. Society will be able to look forward to a multiplying pool of role models for this new, empowered maturity. Warren Buffett remains the world's most-respected investor at age 75. Film stars Sophia Loren and Sean Connery are still considered sexy in their seventh and eighth decades. And Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan remains capable and wise at 78.

Many people will reap the benefits of new freedoms as they grow older. As children leave home, parents' daily responsibilities are reduced. As busy schedules begin to let up, we'll have more free time than at any previous period of our lives. With these chunks of newfound leisure, we'll be free to pursue hidden passions and long-suppressed dreams: take a hike, write a novel, or sail the world.

As the boomer generation passes into maturity, now is the time for companies to adjust their thinking about men and women over age 50. When the leading edge of the baby boom first arrived, America and its institutions were totally unprepared. Waiting lists and long lines developed at hospitals across the country; facilities and staff were inadequate, and in some hospitals, hallways were used as labor rooms. Similarly, apartments and homes didn't have enough bedrooms for boomer kids, there was a shortage of baby food and diapers, and department stores couldn't keep enough toys in stock to meet the multiplying demand. When boomers took their first steps, the shoe, photo, and Band-Aid industries skyrocketed. Similarly, sales of tricycles, Slinkies, and Hula-Hoops exploded as the marketplace was flooded with products for kids.

When baby boomers reach any stage of life, the issues that concern them--whether financial, interpersonal, or even hormonal--become the dominant social, political, and marketplace themes of the time. Boomers don't just populate existing life stages or consumer trends--they transform them. On January 1, 1996, the first baby boomer turned 50. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, boomers will evolve into the largest elder generation in history. As the oldest members of the baby-boom cohort start turning 65 in 2011, they will swell the ranks of the "elderly" from approximately 40 million now to more than 70 million by 2030. But boomers will transform the look, meaning, experience, and purpose of maturity. As they reach age 65, it will not be viewed as "elderly."

Until recently, corporations, marketers, and entrepreneurs paid little attention to men and women over age 50. There was, after all, little to spark their interest in a group whose members tended to be financially disadvantaged, frugal, and perceived as set in their ways and uninterested in new products and ideas. But Americans in their 50s and older currently earn more than $ 2 trillion in annual income, own more than 70% of the nation's personal financial assets, and represent 50% of all discretionary spending power. In fact, their per capita discretionary spending is 2.5 times more than the average of younger households and is particularly strong in the financial services, health care, leisure, wellness, and beauty products categories.

The Challenge to Social Security

After studying aging issues for more than 30 years, I've concluded that the best way to guarantee a financially secure old age is to be a part of a very small generation and then give birth to a very large generation. That way, when you are in your 70s and they are in their 40s and 50s, they'll be paying enormous amounts of taxes for your support. That's exactly the situation for today's seniors.

In contrast, the baby boomers are part of a very large generation, who, relatively speaking, gave birth to a smaller number of kids to support them. Whereas the boomers' parents averaged four kids each, boomers themselves average around half that number. Because the boomers are also going to be living longer than anybody ever imagined, it's going to become increasingly difficult for government entitlements to support retirement at the age and level that we're seeing now. When Social Security was first created in the United States, the average life expectancy was only 63 years, and there were 40 workers supporting each retiree. Now, there are only about 3.2 workers for each retiree. By the time I reach my middle 60s--about 10 years from now--there will only be about two workers supporting me, and I just don't think they're going to want to do that.

Many people are now choosing to continue working into their "retirement" years. We are on the verge of entering what I will call the "fourth era of retirement."

Four Eras of Retirement

The first era of retirement lasted for about 100,000 years and ended in the early twentieth century. During that era, you worked all of your life. That was not considered a bad thing, because work served a variety of purposes. In addition to providing a livelihood, work also offered a way of feeling worthwhile and productive. It was a great socialization activity, where you encountered people of all ages. You felt involved. If you had a very demanding job and your body was no longer able to conduct the work required to do that job, you would be transitioned to a more appropriate function. So if grandpa's job was to plow the fields and that became too hard, he might become involved with fixing the fences. But the idea that people were to retire was not a part of our consciousness. Working in maturity was viewed positively.

During the Industrial Revolution, all that abruptly changed. By the 1920s, the second era of retirement began and was well established with the crafting of Social Security in the 1930s. This wonderful program had two purposes: First, it was designed to create a thin safety net for older adults in a period of economic frailty. Second, with the unemployment levels skyrocketing to 25%, retirement provided an institutional process whereby older people would be removed from the workforce to make room for the young.

Then the third era of retirement emerged during the 1960s and 1970s, when we began to think of retirement as the "golden years" of life. In fact, the younger you retired, the more successful you were perceived to be. At the same time, longevity began to rise for adults, and so the post-work period became a stage lasting not two or three years, but 15 to 20 years or even longer. Ultimately, people began to think of retirement as a birthright--an entitlement. And that is the era in which we have been situated through the last quarter century. That era is fraying at the edges now, and I believe a fourth is now emerging.

The New Retirement Era: From Retirement to "Rehirement"

Recent research has shown that the modern retirement experiment is simply not working for most people. About half of all the retirees in the United States say they'd rather be working, though most don't want to work full time. Some might like to try doing something different and new, and most don't want all the pressure they had when they were young. Some even want to work for free as volunteers. A lot of people are now saying, "You know, this golden age thing is just not enough for me. While a few years of leisure is great--decades of nothing to do can be deadly!" So the new era of retirement will be "rehirement."

One reason for this growing interest in rehirement is that a lot of retirees are just plain bored: Last year, the average retiree watched 43 hours of television a week. Another reason is that most people simply cannot afford to live on a fixed income for 20 or more years. An increasing number of older adults are not interested in acting their age and retreating to the sidelines. Instead, they'd rather rebel against ageist stereotypes and are seeking to be productive and involved and even late-blooming in their maturity.

Again, we can look to a growing cadre of role models for the new style of aging. When you have John Glenn going up into space at 77, Sumner Redstone running Viacom at 80, and Lena Horne still on the concert circuit at 85, you are beginning to see the emergence of a new kind of lifestyle hero, an elder hero.

These forces are fueling the new, fourth era of retirement. People now do not really want to retire at all. Rather, they want a "turning point," a chance to step out of a full-time job or an exhausting career, take a break or sabbatical, and then reinvent themselves. Eventually, I believe, most people will want a better balance between work and leisure throughout their lives. As they mature, they would like to be able to work at what they want, perhaps working fewer hours with more recreation and leisure interspersed. They will want to stay in the game--not relegated to the sidelines.

Retirement is in the midst of a sweeping transformation. In the years to come, more older men and women will be starting up their engines and jumping back into the workforce, maybe even having the most-productive years of their lives.

Ageless Explorers vs. The Comfortably Content

Generalizing about retirees is proving increasingly wrongheaded. Already we are seeing lifestyle or attitudinal differences among different retiree groups today.

My firm, Age Wave, in collaboration with Harris Interactive and sponsored by AIG SunAmerica, recently interviewed 1,000 retiree households to find out how folks were doing and whether there were differences in their experience of retirement. From this research, we discovered that there were four distinct types of mature adults, each with its own experience of retirement.

We've named one of the segments the Ageless Explorers--a group that makes up 27% of the older adult U.S. population. These are people who are becoming the new role models for retirement. They feel youthful and active. They want to contribute to their community. They like to learn and make new friends. They're very much alive--all their pistons are firing, and they want to keep working. They view themselves as aging in an ageless way. When we asked these people when they thought they'd feel elderly inside, they said "Never."

Another group of retirees we call the Comfortably Contents, comprising 19% of the older adult population. These people are essentially living their golden years--which may turn out to be yesterday's retirement dream. Their primary desire in this stage of their lives is to simply relax and be free of worry, stress, and obligation. When we asked members of this segment when they thought they'd feel elderly inside, they said "Soon." This may well be a pleasant retirement for some, but for many people, this life of pure leisure is just not exciting or vibrant enough. My guess is that most boomers will become Ageless Explorers rather than Comfortably Contents.


The third segment, making up 22% of the older adult population, are the Live-for-Todays. These folks define themselves as fun and adventuresome. They're interesting and lively people, and they love the idea of continuing to grow as individuals. The problem is that they spent so much of their lives living for today that they now don't have enough money to feel comfortable. They have an enormous amount of worry and regret about how they're going to make it, and they feel anxious that they may not achieve the level of pleasure and joy that they had hoped for, due to their lack of financial preparedness.

The fourth and largest category--32%--are the Sick-and-Tireds. These are people who have been beaten down by life, and most are having a miserable time in retirement. They've got the least amount of money and have done the least to prepare for retirement. The effect of it is that their unfortunate state leaves them feeling hopeless and unwilling to do nearly anything with their lives. When we asked these people if they would like to go to the community college, they said "No." Would they like to volunteer in their local church programs? "No." Would they like to spend more time with their family? "No." Take a trip? "No." They've pretty much resigned themselves to the fact that their lives are winding down, and they are suffering their way to the end.

Our "Re-Visioning Retirement" study also revealed that about 80% of the next generation of "retirees," the boomers, expect to be working at least part time in their retirement. They apparently do not want to be as disconnected as many of today's retirees seem to be. Instead, they want a different balance in their lives: They want to enjoy extended amounts of leisure time, but they also want to be doing some work--maybe two or three days a week of regular work, or helping out from time to time on a community project, or running a small business from home. Our respondents also said that they want to continue learning and growing in their maturity. They want to be developing their human potential rather than just sitting in the rocking chair and watching TV.

The Transformation of Retirement

We're currently at the tipping point in which retirement is transforming into a new model. It is becoming a time for personal reinvention--new beginnings, lifelong learning, and a cyclic blend of work and leisure.

In addition to their desire to postpone old age, the boomers' propensity for personal growth and new lifestyle challenges will also render obsolete the traditional "linear life" paradigm, in which people migrate in lockstep first through education, then work, then leisure/retirement. In its place, a new "cyclic life" paradigm is emerging in which education, work, and leisure are interspersed repeatedly throughout the life span. It will become normal for 50-year-olds to go back to school and for 70-year-olds to reinvent themselves through new careers. Phased retirements, part-time and flex-time work, and "rehirements" will become common options for elder boomers who'll either need or want to continue working.

Most discussions about increasing longevity have been focused on how to live longer rather than on why. I worry that without envisioning a new purpose for old age, we could be creating a future in which the young are pitted against the old.

In youth, boomers were self-indulgent in their priorities. In their late teens and 20s, many shared an idealistic commitment to bettering society. During the past several decades of career building and child-rearing, these boomers had to put aside many of their early ideals. In the decades ahead, the boomers will complete America's transformation into a gerontocracy, as they take control of the nation's social and economic power.

If they can step outside their generational tendency toward self-centeredness and wield this power wisely and productively, they could rise to their greatest height and make a remarkable success of history's first multiethnic, multiracial, and multigenerational melting pot. But if they use their numbers and influence to bully younger generations and gobble up all of the available resources, political "age wars" could erupt in which the young lash out in anger and frustration at the weighty demands placed on their increasingly strained resources.

However, if they can learn to exemplify a new kind of wise, mature leadership, when the boomers' time on earth is over, perhaps they will be remembered as not just the largest generation in history, but also the finest.

RELATED ARTICLE: New Opportunities for Aging Agelessly

In the years ahead, watch for growth in a wide variety of industries and services to meet the needs of a maturing marketplace, including:

* Specialty diagnosis and treatment centers for particular body parts, such as the eyes, ears, muscles, bones, or nervous system.

* Therapeutically cloned kidneys, livers, lungs, hearts, skin, blood, and bones for "tune-up" and replacement purposes.

* Nutraceuticals--foods and supplements engineered with macro- and micronutrients to fight aging.

* Cosmeceutical rejuvenation therapies for both men and women.

* Antiaging spas.

* High-tech exercise gear and equipment programmed to precisely "train" users to build stronger, healthier, and more youthful bodies.

* Smart acoustic systems in telephones, radios, and TVs that customize signals to accommodate the auditory range of each user's ears.

* Silver Seals--"for-hire" teams of elders with various problem-solving talents who are deployed to "fix" difficult community or business issues.

* Lifelong-learning programs at colleges, universities, churches, and community centers and on cable TV and the Internet.

* "Retirement Zone" stores featuring products and technologies appealing to older adults with free time.

* Adventure-travel services that send older adults to off-the-beaten-trail locations.

* Mature employment and career transition coordinators.

* Experience agents--similar to travel agents--that can be commissioned to orchestrate any type of request, whether it's a party, learning program, psychotherapy, sabbatical, travel adventure, spiritual retreat, introduction to new friends, or business partnerships.

* Mature dating services to help the tens of millions of single, mature women and men find new relationships.

* Longevity-oriented communities for health-minded elders.

* Intergenerational communes.

* Urban arts retirement communities that focus on cultural pursuits.

* University-based intergenerational housing for people who desire lifelong learning.

* Multinational time-share clubs for those who aren't interested in settling down in one location.

* Long-term care insurance financing to provide security against the possibility of late-life chronic health problems.

* Estate management and trust services to help families manage the $ 20 trillion inheritance cascade that is about to occur.

* Reverse mortgages to help people who are cash-poor but "brick-rich."

Excerpted from The Power Years: A User's Guide to the Rest of Your Life (Wiley, August 2005).

--Ken Dychtwald

About the Author

Ken Dychtwald, founder of Age Wave, is a gerontologist, psychologist, public speaker, and best-selling author. His address is Age Wave, One Embarcadero Center, Suite 3810, San Francisco, California 94111. Web site His latest book, The Power Years: A User's Guide to the Rest of Your Life, will be published by Wiley in August.