The 2-Minute Thought: What Does It Mean To Live For 100 Years?

Laura Carstensen, director of Stanford’s Center on Longevity, wrote in a recent column that reaching age 90 or even 100 is well within reach for many millennials.  As a result, millennials will be the first generation ever to spend a third of their lives as what we now call “old people.”

That has big implications.  The Center on Longevity thus has taken on a research project called Sightlines to look at how longer lives will be different.  Recently it reported on how six different age groups are doing in three key dimensions: healthy lifestyles, financial security, and social engagement. 

Millennials already are living differently.   They are healthier and better educated.  Fewer of them smoke than young people did in the past, and more have college degrees.  On the social engagement front, millennials are less likely to be married with children, but more likely to be living with a partner.  More of them feel they have friends who will support them than in the past.  And as far as face-to-face interactions go, people of all age groups interact less frequently with their neighbors, but those aged 25- 34 do so the least.

The most alarming dimension of the study may be around financial security.  Across the board, Americans are less financially secure than they were in 2000, but millennials face some especially tough challenges.  More than one out of three 25–34 year olds live at or near the poverty level.  Debt levels have exploded.  More than two thirds of young people are in debt, and average student debt has increased fivefold since 1995.  Fewer than one in three millennials live in their own home -- a 20% decline since 2000.   In addition, the number invested in retirement plans or other opportunities to grow financial assets has dropped significantly since 2000.

How do all of these things relate?  That is a key question for policy makers.  Is it possible that lower marriage rates are the result of lower financial security?  Or are house-buying and marriage being delayed because we now have significantly longer to live? 

Carstensen suggested in her column that perhaps we shouldn’t see young adults still living with their parents as a sign of failure.  Perhaps it makes perfect sense for young people to stay with their parents longer if they expect to work well into their 70s.  Why leave home at 18 or 22, she asks, if you’ll be working for six decades instead of four?

She writes, “Imagine buying a house at 35 (instead of 25) and paying off the mortgage at 65, just as you approach the last third of life, offering flexibility to help children, travel, make philanthropic gifts or return to school.”