A Long Bright Future


By Laura Carstensen

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The twentieth century bequeathed us a fabulous gift: thirty more years of life on average. Supersized life spans are going to radically alter society, and present an unprecedented opportunity to change our approach not only to old age but to all of life’s stages. The ramifications are just beginning to dawn on us…. yet in the meantime, we keep thinking about, and planning for, life as it used to be lived.

In A Long Bright Future, longevity and aging expert Laura Carstensen guides us into the new possibilities offered by a longer life. She debunks the myths and misconceptions about aging that stop us from adequately preparing for the future both as individuals and as a society: that growing older is associated with loneliness and unhappiness, and that only the genetically blessed live well and long. She then focuses on other important components of a long life, including finances, health, social relationships, Medicare and Social Security, challenging our preconceived notions of “old age” every step of the way.


This book is dedicated to my parents, Pam and Edwin Carstensen, for their unfailing love and support and for engendering in all five of their children the freedom to ask, What if?
to Richard Rainwater for his vision and support that created the Stanford Center on Longevity

Those of us living today have been handed a remarkable gift with no strings attached: an extra thirty years of life for the average person. Now that gift is forcing us to answer a uniquely twenty-first-century question:What are we going to do with super-sized lives?
I've asked a lot of people where they'd like to insert extra years into their lives. Trust me, no one ever says, "Let's stretch out old age." Yet strangely, this is exactly what we've been doing. Life expectancy nearly doubled, and we tacked all of them on at the end. Instead of rejoicing about the near elimination of premature death, most of us are uneasy about lives that extend increasingly into triple digits.
Old age itself is a new phenomenon. Sure, a few people in every epoch hung in there long enough to be considered "old," but they were the outliers, not the norm. For most of human history, life expectancy was just shy of twenty years—barely long enough to ensure the survival of the species. Over time, that norm slowly crept upward, hitting the mid-thirties in the nineteenth century. Then—in a blink of an eye, in evolutionary terms—the average lifetime increased dramatically. By the end of the twentieth century, life expectancy was seventy-seven years. Today it is seventy-eight.
What's wild is that seventy-eight is just an average. Many among us today are breezing past eighty, ninety, and beyond. Today there are more than 70,000 centenarians in the United States, roughly four times the number there were just ten years ago. According to the U.S. census, that number will likely exceed 1 million by 2050 . . . and that's a conservative estimate. Nervous folks who direct pension plans are considering the possibility that a far larger number will reach one hundred. One prominent demographer has suggested that most of the children born in the developed world since 2000 will live for a century.
Children who are now in grade school will grow up in societies filled with old people. Most children—not just a lucky few—will grow up in families in which four or five generations are alive at the same time. The population pyramid, that classic demographer's illustration showing an enormous baseline of births slowly being winnowed to a tiny peak representing those who survive to old age, will be a thing of the past.
The ramifications of such a radically altered society are just beginning to dawn on us. Everything will change: education, work, financial markets. Opportunities to make changes that improve quality of life at all ages abound. Why, then, do these newly minted lives in which most people reach very old age seem so hard?
Because long life appeared so suddenly, we lack new social benchmarks that tell us when to get an education, marry, work, and retire. Existing norms don't apply because they evolved around lives half as long. So if you don't yet know how you'll navigate your way through old age, join the club.The fact is, humans are wired to live in the present, not plan for the future. Our evolutionary survival hinged on our adroitness in dealing with the problems of the here and now, not our ability to stockpile resources and make plans for some vague, distant future we might never enjoy. If anything, biology tells us to eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Nature abhors a 401(k), so to speak.
When we do try to override our biological bent toward now with thoughts of later, we often find ourselves at loose ends. When we plan, it's usually for the beginning of life, not the end. Consider all of the planning that goes into molding a child's existence. Parents micromanage everything from what their children experience in the womb (think prenatal vitamins and Mozart played at belly height) to steering them, eighteen years later, toward the right college. Once we are old enough to be out on our own, we pour endless hours into daydreaming and chatting with our mentors and friends about choosing a career, finding the right mate, and starting families of our own.
Many of us have hazy fantasies about retirement day, but when was the last time you caught yourself daydreaming about what you're going to be doing twenty years after you've been handed your gold watch? Instead, we tend to view the years after sixty-five as "leftovers," as the sum of whatever hand luck and genetics have dealt us. Some people find the prospect of planning for their older years—with its intimations of loss, decay, and death—so profoundly unpleasant that they put off thinking about it at all. People often talk about aging as if it sneaks up on them by surprise—they catch a glimpse of themselves in a mirror and realize that an old person is staring back.
And it's not just us. Institutions like Social Security and Medicare, launched in the 1930s and 1960s, respectively, were designed for people who collected benefits for a few years and then died. These institutions are not ready for generations that live—indeed, thrive—into their eighties. As a society, we have little concept of what it is like to be a happy, healthy one-hundred-year-old. Nobody told us what to do with a retirement that could conceivably last forty years. Humans depend profoundly on culture for their well-being, and because these extra years were added to life so suddenly, our culture has not caught up.
But now the baby boomers, always the cultural envelopepushers, are at it again. The first boomers turned sixty-five in 2011 and 79 million more are right behind them, ready to enter this third stage of life. In the next twenty years, instead of one in ten Americans being over age sixty-five, that number will be one in four. By 2030, there will be more Americans over sixty-five than under fifteen.
So far, to the extent that we've collectively imagined the results of this massive demographic shift, we've anticipated it with fear, biting our nails over the effects that an enormous wave of retirees will have on the nation's already overburdened social programs. We assume that providing support for a growing segment of physically disabled, cognitively impaired old people will threaten all that we know.
The media reflects our collective anxiety about growing older. I like to call this the "misery myth." We believe that age robs us of looks, health, work, friends, money, and love. We see older people portrayed as cranky, frail, or demented. We hear horror stories about zombified elderly people packed into substandard nursing homes. When we do hear about successful aging, it's almost always wrapped up in a glossier story about how to stay young, how to avoid old age. Even those who mean to advocate for older people often end up describing their situations in the most dire language possible, as a way of ensuring our continued sympathy and support. There's almost a taboo against saying that older people are doing well—it's as if you don't care about them enough to admit that their lives are really awful.
But the fact is, research shows over and over that most older people are happier than the twenty-somethings who are assumed to be in the prime of life. People over the age of sixty-five have the most stable and optimistic outlook of all adults. They have the lowest rates of depression. Most older people are relatively happy. They're active and live quite successfully on their own, not in nursing homes.
Admittedly, there are problems associated with longevity as we know it—an overly romanticized picture of aging in America does as much harm as an overly negative one. Age-related diseases lower the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of older people and their families, and Social Security and Medicare are facing real financial trouble.
Life expectancy is ballooning just as science and technology are on the cusp of solving many of the practical problems of aging. What if we could not only have lots of added years but spend them being physically fit, mentally sharp, functionally independent, and financially secure? At that point, we no longer have a story about old age. We have a story about long life.
The story is ours to write. Life stages are social constructions, not absolute realities. We have the opportunity to rethink life's stages in profoundly novel ways. What is long life for? Where should the extra years go? In a popular joke, an old man sighs, "No one told me all the extra years come at the end." Well, they don't have to. They can be inserted anywhere.
It won't be solely up to genetics or good luck. How well people fare as they age is also affected by education, intellectual engagement, social networking, and planning—all things we can control as we envision our future.We become what our environment encourages us to be. That was the first lesson I learned about what it's like to be old, and I learned it at the age of twenty-one.
At that time in my life, I was a single mother. I had married at seventeen, and my husband and I separated a few months after the birth of my son. One night, as I was riding home from a concert in a friend's VW van, the driver drunkenly piloted us off the road, rolling the van down an embankment. I sustained about twenty fractures. My femur was severed and my lung was punctured. I had lots of internal bleeding and I was temporarily blinded due to the swelling in my head. For weeks, it wasn't clear whether I would live or die.
I spent nearly four months in an orthopedic ward lying flat on my back, with one leg strapped in the air. The hospital nurses gave me a job. I was to talk to the three old women who shared the room with me, to make sure they didn't get too delusional and disoriented from living in the perpetual hospital gloom.
In many ways, all four of us were old. I couldn't get around any better than they could. Everything hurt. We were isolated from the rest of the world. My roommates and I got used to having nurses do everything for us, like unwrapping the packets from our food trays before we ate. Then one day the nurse put my tray down and rushed off to help another patient. I remember getting angry because I was hungry and wanted to eat my lunch. but she hadn't unwrapped anything on the tray. Then I realized I could do it. I will never forget that insight about the importance of the social world. If I had become passive and dependent in a matter of months at age twenty-one, what happens to people when the social world tells them that they are not expected to contribute, that other people will care for them, that they should sit back and take what is offered?
That was the beginning of my interest in aging, as well as my career in psychology. My professor father, recognizing my intense boredom during those bedridden days, volunteered to attend college psychology classes and tape-record the lectures for me.When I was well enough, I continued at the University of Rochester, first in a wheelchair and then with a cane—almost like aging backward. At age fifty-seven, I am in better physical shape than I was at twenty-one.
My experience in the hospital led me to separate the problems of aging from aging itself. When you are young and impaired, you are expected to fix the problem.When you are old and impaired, you are encouraged to accept it. There is a joke about a ninety-four-year-old man who goes to his doctor to complain about a persistent pain in his right leg. His physician says, "What do you expect? That leg is ninety-four years old!" The old man replies, "Yes, doc, but the left leg is ninety-four years old too, and it is just fine." Stuck in bed, treated like someone four times my age, I started thinking about aging, about how much is biological and how much is the social world telling you what you're supposed to do. Don't misunderstand me. Aging is a biological process, but the environment in which we age plays a critical role in steering the course.
Today I am a professor of psychology at Stanford University and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, where our goal is to harness the benefit of those extra thirty years to improve the quality of life for everyone, from early childhood to old age. I've been privileged to know many hundreds of older people, some as participants in my research, some as clients in therapy, and others as friends and relatives. These relationships have prevented me from holding on to stereotypes of old people, whether crotchety cranks or kindly, wise saints. Broad stereotypes of old people, whether idealized or negative, simply don't hold. I have repeatedly witnessed the tragedy of Alzheimer's disease as well as the physical frailty that often accompanies aging. But I have also had many friends who are anything but frail or dull.
Friends like Grace Lowell, a dancer, teacher, and music therapist trained in a Jungian tradition, consistently challenged me to ask what old age is for. Grace, who died just shy of ninety-eight, considered herself a pioneer striving to explore a stage in life she never expected to experience. After retiring from the stage, Grace had turned to teaching and was among the first in the nation to offer ballet classes to two-year-olds. Heading her own dance school well into her nineties, Grace maintained that aging had made her a better teacher.With less physical strength, she couldn't chase the little ones around, so she found ways to outwit her pupils by connecting with their minds. For this dancer, as for Jung, the really interesting stages of development occur after the physicality of youth has passed, after we transcend our bodies and get to the more substantial parts of life.
I see many older university colleagues on a daily basis who are brilliant leaders. John Gardner—a social reformer and public servant often described as the quintessential American hero—returned to Stanford as a consulting professor at the age of seventy-seven, where he remained until his death in 2002. My good friend Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Civic Ventures, likes to point out that Gardner's greatest achievements, from crafting Lyndon Johnson's Great Society agenda, including the creation of Medicare, to founding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, were accomplished after he had reached nominal retirement age. I recall a conversation I had with Gardner one afternoon. He told me that when his mother was one hundred years old, she had told him she found "this business of aging" to be "upsetting." Gardner had reassured her that she was exceptionally healthy and able for a person her age. She'd replied, "Oh, it's not me I'm worried about, it's you and your brother."
But I have also seen the other side of aging. For people without access to health care and education, or who lack avenues for career advancement, aging is a starkly different process. I have been associated with the Over 60s Health Center in Berkeley, California, for more than twenty years. Established by the Gray Panthers, Over 60s was the first community-based medical clinic to serve the poor elderly in the nation. It was through my association with Over 60s that I met Lillian Rabinowitz, an activist who spent her life fighting for health care reform. Lillian never took her eye off the suffering of older people without means. I will always remember the day we met and began discussing what social scientists were saying about the later years in life. The conversation drifted to the work of Erik Erikson, who wrote about making peace with life in the later years. Lillian remarked, "Don't you think this is a lot of crap? Life is hard when you're old." We were friends from there on out. Lillian would agree that aging per se isn't the problem, but she never let me forget that there are problems.
Longevity is a complex subject, and I don't mean to oversimplify it. I am not going to lay down a bunch of rules or urge you to adopt a certain diet, and you're not going to have to buy an update every year as the shifting winds of pop science advise you to take this vitamin or do that brain exercise to ward off the physical effects of aging. Instead, this book will give you the tools to understand what aging is and what you can realistically expect old age to be like in the twenty-first century. It will explain how our culture can adapt as the boomer generation sets off on the biggest demographic adventure in history, and, for the first time, how younger generations can begin to plan for lives that will last longer than any prior generations in human history.
All generations will be affected by the new longevity, not simply old folks. In fact, longevity is an issue for today's young people as much as for older people.Young people today will reap the benefits or bear the burdens of longer lives. Both the problems and the strengths of older generations take decades to develop. For personal and societal reasons, younger generations need to give considerable thought to aging societies. In other words, twenty-somethings need to think about aging as much as the sixty-somethings—maybe more.
Still, boomers have a particular responsibility to lead the way. Even though we didn't create the challenges, we may need to pick up the check. We'll at least need to do all we can to set in motion changes that ensure that aging societies are the best thing that ever happened to children. This will demand that we rekindle the creativity and out of the box thinking we've been claiming to have since the 1960s and 1970s, when we were chanting in the streets saying that the world was not living up to our moral standards, that we were going to change it and make life better. As a boomer myself, I believe that we never did live up to our generation's advance billing. We proclaimed that our generation would start a social revolution.Then we got distracted.We started to raise families and pursue careers.
We said we'd never trust anyone over thirty. Little did we know that we'd be the older people we said we'd never trust when we finally had the chance to pull off a social revolution. We are the first generation in memory that could leave our children's generation worse off than our own, but there's still time for us to radically alter that course. Our challenge is to make old age not only acceptable but inviting—to make sure that our lives in this unexpected overtime will be a contribution, not a burden, either to ourselves or to those who come after us. We can craft an old age that will be intellectually stimulating, socially rewarding, productive, and fun. The greatest gift we could give future generations is to say, "Here's a way to be old that you'll want to be." Even better, we can ensure that today's nursery schoolers are the first generation to live in a society that prepares them to live long and healthy lives.
I truly believe that we can do it. We've got the smarts and we've got the numbers. Think of it as the boomers' last revolt.

Five Myths About Long Life You Can't Afford to Believe
If we're going to develop a clear-eyed view of our futures, as a prelude to making lives not only longer but better, we're going to have to get rid of as many myths about aging as we can—and there are plenty. In fact, there is a very good chance that much of what you think you know about aging is wrong.
Living longer means growing old, and the entire aging process is fraught with unappealing stereotypes and discouraging myths, probably because few of us see aging up close until we're fully immersed in it ourselves. American society is so age segregated that the few older people we do know are usually our grandparents or elder relatives—a small and decidedly unrepresentative sample whose very status as close family often blurs the nuances of their personalities and their lives. We often appreciate just the roles they fill, not the people they are.
After all, how many of us have subtle and complex understandings of the older people in our families until we're older ourselves? I certainly didn't ask a lot of questions of my older relatives when I was young. I loved them, but didn't really try to get to know them as individuals. For their part, older relatives may not spend much time disclosing the details of their personal lives to the younger generation; a family's focus is usually on the young ones. Until my aunt Mabel was in her nineties, I assumed she had been single all of her life. In fact, she had had a short and turbulent marriage when she was a young woman. Until I was middle-aged, I didn't know her sister had been found dead in a hotel room, and I still don't know the circumstances that surrounded her death. I didn't know that my grandfather was the person in his small Nebraska town to whom everyone turned whenever they needed any sort of appliance or radio repaired. The man apparently had an instinct for electricity. Maybe it is no coincidence that his son, my father, grew up to study electromagnetic fields. But I didn't make these connections until I was aging myself.
In the absence of personal knowledge, we may expect all older people to be cut from the same cloth as the few we happen to know. I suspect that this is why aging stereotypes tend to run to one-dimensional polar opposites, either based on happy times at holidays with beloved older family members or on negative interactions with people who seem extremely irritable or sick. Worse, when we imagine what we'll be like ourselves when we're older, we tend to extrapolate from our limited family experiences, and that's not always a pretty picture—it depends on whether your particular aunt Betty baked cookies or had dementia. Time after time, I've given talks about aging and people in the audience tell me either that they believe a particular finding because their grandmothers are just like that, or they refuse to believe it, because their grandmothers aren't like that at all.
Few of us see the scope, the range, or the complexities of older lives. For purely selfish reasons, this is problematic because it makes it hard to know where we're headed ourselves, and to consider the vast range of possibilities ahead. The truth of it is that older people's life paths are anything but binary; there's a good deal of shading between saintly granny and sour grump. Their lives are also anything but bland. In fact, in terms of personality and life experience, older people are the most diverse part of the population. My dad likes to say that all babies are alike—as infants, they have little opportunity to differentiate. But with every decade of life, every twist in the life path makes people more individual, less likely to have been shaped by the exact same set of experiences as anyone else. Consequently, as a person grows older, chronological age tells us less and less about what they will be like. It makes no sense to embark on discussions about aging societies by reducing older populations to their lowest common denominators.
As a practical matter for people who want to plan happy, healthy long lives for themselves, or for a society that wants to engineer them for everyone, these myths don't just seed doubts, they are impediments to change. They create worries that cloud the imagination and blunt hope, even if they never pan out. They create social stresses and divisions between generations that don't really need to exist. They promote anachronistic expectations about old age that, as a species and a society, we have simply outgrown, and that are out of step with the way real people live today. Much of the time, they paint such a grim picture of the future that we dread thinking about it, never mind planning for it!
Let's start by getting rid of five of the worst myths:
• The "Misery Myth" that older people are sad and lonely
• The "DNA Is Destiny Myth" that your whole fate is foretold in your genes
• The "Work Hard, Retire Harder Myth" that we should rush to exit the workforce
• The "Scarcity Myth" that older people are a drain on the world's resources
• The "We Age Alone Myth" that how we fare in old age is entirely an individual matter, and not a function of society

Myth # 1: Older People Are Miserable

The biggest myth on the menu is that older people are inevitably unhappy, lonely, and dejected. If you've been dreading the passage of time because you worry that your happiest days are behind you, take heart. I've spent the last thirty years investigating the psychology of aging, and my research consistently shows that, in terms of emotion, the best years come late in life.
With the exception of dementia-related diseases, which by definition have organic roots, mental health generally improves with age. Older people as a group suffer less from depression, anxiety, and substance abuse than their younger counterparts. In everyday life, they experience fewer negative emotions than people in their twenties and thirties—the people we stereotypically think of as the most happy—yet just as many positive ones. Moreover, older people manage negative emotions better than younger people do.When negative feelings arise, they don't linger the way they do in the young. Many people, even social scientists, are shocked by these findings. They challenge our implicit understanding of happiness, which is that it flows from the esoteric qualities of youth: health, beauty, power. But if these naturally recede with age, why are older people so content?
This has been dubbed the paradox of aging, but I maintain there is more logic than paradox. The answer lies in something we might commonly call life perspective; a more technical term that I and my colleagues have introduced is "socioemotional selectivity." I'll discuss our theory about this concept in greater depth in chapter 4, but the crux of this idea is that human beings are unique in their ability to measure the passage of time against a sort of internal "life span clock," keeping track of where they are in the life cycle. When we are young, time seems expansive, and we focus on acquiring knowledge, seeking novel experiences, and enmeshing ourselves in a large network of friends and colleagues. As we age, we sense the clock winding down and our attention shifts to savoring the time that is left, focusing instead on depth of experience, closeness, a smaller set of goals, and a highly selected group of loved ones.
This change in perspective seems to bring with it a new way of evaluating what is worth one's time, attention, worry, or wrath. For many, this translates into a greater tendency to let go of life's negatives, and to focus on the positives. My mother managed to nail this perspective with a single sentence in an e-mail she sent me last week: "Still having terrible winter weather, but isn't that full moon beautiful?"


  • Huffington Post
    “Many great minds are committed to redefining aging and retirement models that embrace this new reality. One of them is Laura Carstensen. Carstensen has been on the forefront of research on aging for nearly 30 years.”

On Sale
Sep 27, 2011
Page Count
352 pages

Laura Carstensen

About the Author

Laura L. Carstensen, Ph.D. is a professor of psychology, and the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. Her research has been supported for more than twenty years by the National Institute on Aging. A Guggenheim Fellow, an NIH Merit Award winner and a member of the MacArthur Foundation’s Research Network on an Aging Society, she lives in Los Altos Hills, California.

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