The Time of Our Lives
'Having It All' in an Age of Longevity?
This is the part of a new series of co-authored articles with inspiring thought leaders, practitioners and inter-generational idea generators of all kinds.
This piece started with a powerful conversation with Debora Spar over lunch at Henrietta’s, one of Harvard’s much-frequented intellectual hangouts, we were two 60ish women discussing the evolving state of love, work, tech and gender and the pursuit of … meaning.
About my Co-Author: Debora Spar
Debora Spar is Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and Senior Associate Dean for Business and Global Society. She is exploring issues of gender and tech, and the interplay between technological change and broader social structures. She was President of Barnard College from 2008 - 2017 where she highlighted women’s leadership and advancement. A prolific writer, Spar’s books include Ruling the Waves: Cycles of Discovery, Chaos, and Wealth from the Compass to the Internet (2001), The Baby Business (2006), and Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection (2013).
I first encountered Debora reading her extraordinary book Work Mate Marry Love: How Machines Shape Our Human Destiny:
What will happen to our notions of marriage and parenthood as reproductive technologies increasingly allow for newfangled ways of creating babies? What will happen to our understanding of gender as medical advances enable individuals to transition from one set of sexual characteristics to another, or to remain happily perched in between? What will happen to love and sex and romance as our relationships migrate from the real world to the Internet? Can people fall in love with robots? Will they? In short, what will happen to our most basic notions of humanity as we entangle our lives and emotions with the machines we have created?
Combining my work in longevity and gender with her work on women, technology and social norms, we came up with the article below. It looks at the impact of extended, 4-Quarter Lives on the messy business of making babies, the new work phase of the 3rd Quarter, and the meaning we can claim through becoming - in the end - ourselves.
Hope you enjoy our collaboration!
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The Time of Our Lives
Over the past thirty years, the demographics of the baby boomer era have been turned upside down. Birth rates are plummeting across the industrialised world; populations are growing older and frailer; and entire countries are beginning to shrink. In the United States, the average number of children born to women between the ages of 15 and 44 fell 20% between 2007 and 2020, and then tumbled further during the pandemic. Roughly 16% percent of the American population was older than 65 in 2020, much higher than the global average of 9%. Across Europe and Asia, countries that once worried about reckless population growth have seen fertility rates sputter and decline. Italy’s population is projected to shrink by a remarkable annual rate of 10% while Japan is tumbling faster, at 16%. Even in China, where the government imposed harsh “one child” policies between 1980 and 2016, women are now getting married much later, and frequently deciding to remain both child- and husband-free. An entire generation of Chinese children may grow up as so-called “little emperors” – the single offspring of two parents and four grandparents.
As these changes rip across society, they promise to re-shape both the beginning and the end of what used to be our normal patterns on life. The first is most obvious: as fertility rates plunge, we will simply have fewer babies among us, and fewer young people to enter the work force. Over the next several decades, the working-age population of much of the working world is almost certain to decline as a result, leaving businesses struggling to fill open positions and social security systems fraying at the edge. At the same time, the old among us will continue to grow older still, pushing the cost of healthcare ever higher, and threatening to absorb savings that might once have funded younger generations’ homes, schools, and businesses. It is hardly a robust vision of a brave new world.
But there is also a decided upside to this demographic lurch, one that can deliver real benefits to both individuals and their wider societies. To seize these benefits, though, we need to begin by breaking out of the generational mindsets that restrain us all, realising that we are not condemned to repeat our grandparents’ lifecycles any more than our grandchildren are obliged to mimic ours. Instead, we need to chart new pathways through these changing landscape, and new narratives that explain them. We need, in other words, to realise that demographic changes aren’t just abstract statistics, but guideposts to how we could, and should, reshape the patterns of our lives. And then, as women and men, workers and employers, parents and children, we need to act differently.
We need to realise that we are not condemned to repeat our grandparents’ lifecycles any more than our grandchildren are obliged to mimic ours.
In particular, we need to acknowledge that our personal plans and social structures still reflect a time when most people died at 68 or 70. We grow up, get educated, form families, build careers and then plan to retire, roughly, at 65. This made sense when that post-retirement phase would last for three or four years, enough to enjoy 40 years’ worth of retirement savings and see one’s grandchildren down the aisle.
Yet people who live to 65 today are likely, in actuarial terms, to live until 83 (for men) or 85 (for women). More than half of babies born today are predicted to live past 100. People in their sixties are increasingly unlikely to have adult grandchildren. And, with a good thirty or forty years left ahead when they reach these once-golden years, hanging on for decades with the same job, or spouse, may not hold quite the same level of attraction that it once did. Sure, our ageing Baby Boomers could just draw out the inevitable, shuffling into a retirement that could theoretically last longer than their working lives. But in a post-pandemic, demographically-shifting world, we now have the opportunity to rethink things instead.
A New Roadmap: 4-Quarter Lives
Let’s start with the math, the basic almanac of how we plot our days and imagine our lives.
“What walks on four legs in the morning,” riddled Oedipus’s Sphinx, “on two at noon, and on three in the evening?” Baby, adult, elder – we’ve followed these phases since the ancient Greeks. Currently, almost subconsciously, we tend to divide our span into three distinct phases. There is birth and childhood first, of course, the roughly twenty years it takes all humans to grow, develop, and become self-sufficient. Then adulthood, when we have typically paired off, had children, and found the economic means to support them. And finally old age, when our children are finished with their own first chapters and we, inevitably, decline.
But their world is no longer ours. Because when life more customarily ends at 80 (rather than around 40, which was the norm when Sophocles wrote), three phases no longer suffice. Instead, we need a fourth, one that does more than just extend our current adulthood to the brink of old age.
Specifically, we suggest re-conceiving our lives’ patterns into four distinct chapters, or quarters.
Q1: In this recasting, Q1 lasts from infancy through early adulthood, encompassing a child’s earliest years as well as the prolonged adolescence and financial dependence that have more recently become the norm.
Q2: Charts the first phase of adulthood, a period of twenty or thirty years when young adults begin to establish themselves in the world. Most (but not all) will become economically independent during this phase. Many will bear children, and pair off into family units.
Q3: Then comes Q3, the new decades gifted by longer and healthier lifespans. What used to be seen as the twilight of work and careers may now become the most productive and impactful years, especially for parents who are now no longer so intimately involved with their children’s concerns. Some may use this time to fade out of the original careers and into new ones, or exchange partners they parented with for those who suit other, newer desires. Some who earned good money during Q2 may turn to philanthropic pursuits instead; some who followed their passions during those earlier years can similarly get back to business in Q3. Because there’s time – a good twenty or thirty additional years of adulthood before Q4 hits.
Q4: Becomes the old Q3 – but hopefully one more purposefully geared towards the joys and demands of an older old age. These new elders will be older than the generations before them. They will need more care. And we will need social structures that consciously plan for this long future and anticipate its many needs. Real estate, pension planning, even adult education and assistive robots – rather than simply taking retirement structures designed for a younger and shorter old-age, we need to take all the tools of our new era and reconfigure them for something very new.
Adapting to this four-quarter mindset sounds straightforward: extend the horizon, add extra years. But in fact, it’s more subtle and profound. By separating adulthood into two distinct phases and pushing the end stage out, we can more consciously harness some of this era’s most complex demographics challenges.
First, fertility. Second, a declining work force. And third, the search for meaning past the point of both production and reproduction.
1. The Messy Business of Babies
For most of the twentieth century, the worlds of business and babies existed in wholly separate spheres. Women had the babies and tended to them; men provided the paid labor that helped to support these children. Even as women became an increasingly greater segment of the workforce, the children they produced – demographically speaking – had little impact on the overall economy. They were mouths to feed, of course, and eventually workers to be employed, but so long as the new mouths and workers appeared in roughly the same numbers as those they displaced, the economy remained in a stable, steady state.
That steady world no longer exists. Instead, as birth rates plummet and demographic pyramids morph into squares, millions of women around the world are essentially voting with their wombs, refusing to reproduce their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. Why? Part of the answer is certainly better birth control; part a response to both the ever-growing cost of raising children and the ever-scarier prospects of global climate crisis. But part is also women actively acknowledging that they don’t want to replicate the “have it all” balancing acts that their mothers’ generation tried – and arguably failed – to achieve. And so rather than trying to balance the demands of work and babies and marriage all at once, they are increasingly choosing to have their babies later - or not at all.
It doesn’t have to be this way. On the contrary, one of the few silver linings of the recent COVID pandemic was the Zoom-window it opened to different ways of configuring the work-family divide. It turns out that a new mother can breastfeed her baby while watching a colleague’s sales presentation. A new dad can tuck his infant under his standing desk to nap while he’s in a meeting. Many office workers don’t really need to commute to an office, and no one really needs neckties, pantyhose, or high heels. In many ways, the pandemic of 2022 brought us back to pre-industrial days, when family tasks were more fluid and everybody worked from home. Why not take a page, or several, from our pandemic playbook and recreate norms of work that are consciously more flexible and family friendly? Why not imagine holding on to some of the social structures we created during the pandemic – the pods, the bubbles, the in-laws-in-the-backyard – and investigate ways of morphing the nuclear family into something larger, messier and perhaps more suited to the complex demands of child-rearing. Family structures have always evolved to meet the demographic realities of their era. In the future, we’ll need them to adapt again, discarding the strict gender divisions that haunt many couples still, along with the increasingly antiquated notion that it takes only two people to raise a child.
Meanwhile, the sheer fact of our own longer lives means that women (men too, but particularly women) have more options for thinking about the structure and pacing of those lives. Currently, the central problem with trying to balance children and careers is that they seem to happen all at once. Or, more specifically, that the most intense portions of child-rearing and career-building seem to crash down upon women at precisely the same time. Women, like men, tend to finish their education in their mid-twenties, and gain stature in the workforce around their mid-thirties. But then women (unlike men) encounter the unrelenting pressure of the biological clock, reminding them in no uncertain terms that their fertility begins to decline by thirty-five, and then sinks precipitously ever after. Yes, admittedly, the clock ticks differently for each individual woman. And yes, increasingly, women can turn to technologies of assisted reproduction to have their babies later in life, or through alternative means such as egg freezing or surrogacy. But the harsh truth about these technologies is that they are expensive, stressful, and far from guaranteed. The cost of a single IVF cycle in the United States is anywhere from $12,000 to $25,000, and the average woman needs three rounds to conceive. The cost of “donor” eggs can add another $20,000 – per batch. And the incidence of genetic anomalies rises sharply with a birth mother’s age: the risk of Down Syndrome, for example, rises from 1 in 2,50 for women who conceive at age 25 to 1 in 100 for women who conceive at age 40. Mother Nature isn’t fair.
Rather than denying these inconvenient truths, however, we would urge women to consider turning this timing on its head. Have babies young, if you suspect you will want them. Have them while your energy is high, your fertility robust, and your life still evolving. It sounds crazy, we know, or at least horrifically retrograde. But the simple fact is that having babies, and raising babies, doesn’t last forever. And if a young woman is likely to live until the age of 85, she can have her children in her twenties or thirties (Q2), raise them to adulthood, and still have more than an entire chapter of active life (Q3) ahead. Don’t get us wrong. We aren’t saying that women should jump instantly into baby-making whenever the opportunity arises. Or that they should abandon their jobs or professional aims for the decades it takes to raise a child. Or that they should have children without the economic means to support them. Not at all.
Redefining ‘The Right Time’
But we are saying there’s never a “right” time to have a child; never a magic moment when the career ambitions are somehow complete and the pressures of life wholly under control. It just doesn’t happen. Ever. So rather than waiting for that magic to appear, women should feel comfortable having their babies before their careers are fully set, reminding themselves that life, if you’re lucky, is long. And it’s easier to dive back into work than into the messier business of conception. Look at Nancy Pelosi – she married her college sweetheart in 1963 at the age of 23 and had five kids over the next six years. Far from stopping her, motherhood seemed to galvanise her into action. She was elected to Congress at age 47 and first became Speaker of the US House of Representatives in 2007 - at age 67. She’s now still Speaker at age 82. Christine Lagarde, the woman who at 66 heads the European Central Bank, had her first son at age 30, and the second two years later. She became Chairman of international law firm Baker & McKenzie at age 43, divorced a husband along the way and then proceeded to chair the IMF at age 55. Ursula von der Leyen famously had and raised seven children before getting involved in German politics in her hometown of Hanover. She eventually joined Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government in 2005 at the age of 47 before being appointed to run the European Commission at age 61. She’s still going strong.
Yes, these are the wonder women, and they might well have prevailed under any circumstances. They had healthy kids, and more than adequate financial resources. Most had supportive partners. But their experience is instructive nevertheless and underscores a basic truth that applies even in less exalted circles: a woman who begins her child-bearing in her twenties or early thirties is likely to be free from the heaviest obligations of child-rearing by her forties or early fifties. And because people’s incomes tend to rise over time, taking time away from wage-earning to focus on child-rearing is actually less expensive earlier in one’s life than it will become in later decades.
2. The New Work of Q3
In the old model of retirement planning, the years after fifty were a time for people to slow down; to coast through the final stages of a career and anticipate the joys of retirement. It was a time for wage earners to maximise their income and add whatever they could to a nest egg that would then see them through to the end of their lives. Prior to the US Congress’s 1982 decision striking down mandatory retirement, many workers in the United States were obligated to retire by the age of 65. Most were similarly motivated to begin withdrawing their Social Security payments by 62 or 65.
Once again, though, current demographics are rendering this model obsolete. Increasingly, men and women in their fifties, sixties, and seventies are continuing to work, either at jobs they have mastered by this point in their lives, or in new pursuits that excite their interest. Some are simply uninterested in slowing down. Others lack the savings they need to cover another few decades of life. Over the next decade, the number of Americans working over age 75 is expected to increase by a whopping 96.5%! For a multitude of reasons, the now-ageing boomers are reversing traditional patterns of work, lingering in the paid labor force for much longer than what used to be the norm. Think about just two particularly high-profile examples: California’s Senator Dianne Feinstein, at 89, is rounding off her 30th year as Senator of California, with no sign of stepping down. Roger Daltrey of The Who, who famously pledged to “die before [he] gets old,” has now been singing that song for fifty-seven years.
There is nothing wrong with these extreme cases of professional longevity. But not everyone will want to sing the same tune for five decades. Not everyone should. On the contrary, rather than seeing Q3 as a long and continuous slide to retirement, we should explicitly reconfigure it as a new phase of life and work; a time for mature workers to concentrate on and tackle a different set of challenges. As they approach their fifties or sixties, men and women should be empowered to start new jobs or consider new relationships. Parents who pulled back from full-time employment during their child-rearing years should be able to leap back in; entrepreneurs who built and sold successful businesses should feel comfortable handing the reins to someone else and devoting their time to new pursuits. Empty nesters can take care of grandchildren or other extended family members, making it easier for their own sons and daughters to build saner, more flexible lives. In other words, by re-conceiving our later, Q3 years, we can also reconfigure our earlier, Q2 ones, taking the pressure off both men and women to squeeze all of life’s pleasures and rewards into one small-ish segment of time.
Making this shift, though, also means changing the mindset of many business organisations, enabling them to think about their employees’ career patterns in different ways. Rather than driving workers to peak in their 30s – be that through making partner, getting tenure, or working massive overtime hours to prove one’s mettle – companies could enable longer and more varied paths. Some people, to be sure, could still storm up the ladder in their 30s and 40s. Others, though, could work more flexible schedules during their child-rearing years, working part-time or flex-time without compromising their longer-term prospects. Some of these Q2 workers could then accelerate back into their careers in Q3, joined by other Q3 colleagues who may have joined (or re-joined) the work force more recently.
These alterations aren’t difficult to contemplate. In fact, many observers have been counselling companies to move in this direction for decades, ever since women began to stream into the paid labor force. But we are in a different moment now. It’s not just about women anymore. It’s about men and women, the young, the older, and the parents in the middle. All are demanding greater flexibility – and the pandemic proved that it’s not only feasible, but productive and sanity-enhancing too. Companies need workers. Communities need volunteers and mentors and social entrepreneurs. And if we can’t enable young people to rear children more easily, we are going to run out of young people to support the old. We can figure this out.
3. Meaning Through Becoming
“The privilege of a lifetime,” wrote Carl Jung, “is to become who you truly are.” He knew, along with a range of contemporary adult development theorists from Erik Erikson to Robert Kegan, that maturity and its accompanying serenity take time and practice. Age is no guarantee of wisdom. But a key component, self-awareness, is a leadership trait more common in people in the latter half of life. It takes time to figure out who you are and what you want from life. Longer lives give us more time to do just that. Wants and needs keep shifting and changing over life’s four quarters, up through the Maslovian pyramid’s ‘self-actualising’ phase towards a ‘transcendent’ peak. Even if the pace and nature of these stages vary across individuals – even if some people find their transcendent moment early in lives and others never quite get to it – the general pattern is important. Because if everyone assumes they have four quarters to contemplate and plan for, the third becomes an important time to focus on the more abstract and personal work that can too easily get squashed in Q2.
In particular, Q3 presents a perfect time to build or re-invigorate relationships beyond one’s most immediate circle – to invest in groups or activities that create new kinds of personal ties, and new networks of meaning. These can be church groups or community choirs, corporate boards or Robert Putnam’s infamous bowling leagues. It really doesn’t matter. On the contrary, a growing mountain of research on happiness and flourishing points to the simple imperative of having even the loosest of ties, of connections that link an individual to some purpose and set of people outside themselves. Traditionally, these ties arose from the normal cadence of people’s lives – there was the church they grew up in, or the union hall that dominated their town. But these ties have frayed over the past few decades, with very little to replace them. And while women have frequently found ways of building social networks even during the busy years of child-rearing, men have typically had a harder time. Indeed, according to a recent New York Time’s article, “15% men say they have no close friendships at all, a fivefold increase since 1990.”
Q3 offers a perfect moment to address this gap, or at least to take more conscious advantage of the greater flexibility that this time of life permits. We aren’t suggesting, of course, that all sixty-year-old men leap away from their desks to join the local birdwatching club. Instead, we’re trying to legitimise and popularise these kinds of Q3 moves. The Army surgeon who opened a barbeque food truck. The former Defense Department official who now tutors first graders. Neither of these men are necessarily changing the world or accumulating vast wealth in their Q3 moment, but they’re doing good work, interacting with hordes of new people, and having a great deal of fun. To be sure, they both made enough money during Q2 to afford the shifted workloads of Q3, but even those who need a paycheck throughout this time can re-image how, and with whom, they will spend the additional time that usually accompanies this phase of life. With children grown (usually) and the dreams of youth either achieved, escaped, or evolving, Q3 gives both women and men an opportunity to think differently about what matters most to them, and then to invest in those things and relationships while they still have the time.
As men and women discover the meandering options of sixty-year careers and learn to better negotiate the realities of more balanced personal partnerships, we collectively have a chance to conceive new models of life, work and love. We may learn to be more complementary in our pacing, more able to plan ‘family’ careers that are complementary rather than unnecessarily competing or conflicting over time.
Rather than try to juggle two individual careers, companies and couples may learn to compose family careers that strengthen the whole. Over the past sixty years, women have seized onto the twin liberators of education and work with a history-defying vengeance. Not even the Covid pandemic’s assault on their tenuous work/ family balances has halted women’s inexorable, determined advance into financial independence and self-definition, as the idea of a she-cession is quietly being shelved along with our face masks and bread-baking resolutions. As this century’s uber-educated women continue their revolutionary life journeys, they - and their partners - are likely to discover, as we have, something quite surprising about later life.
The baby boomers got lots of things wrong (just ask any Millennial for the list). But as we slide into the later decades of our lives, maybe we can at least channel some of our generation’s once-revolutionary fervour to blow up the business of ageing. Maybe we can figure out how to age more gracefully, more productively; maybe we can get out of the younger generations’ way in the workplace and try to help them on the home front instead. Decades ago, after wrestling with her own work-life balancing, feminist icon Betty Friedan famously revised her advice to young women: “You can have it all, just not all at the same time.” We’d like to agree most heartily, and add men to the mix as well. Nobody can have it all. Not men. Not women. Not anyone.
So rather than trying, as we too often do, to squeeze and prod so many demands into the most hectic period of our lives, maybe we can consciously stretch things out more instead. Maybe we can harness our generation’s shifting demographics for the broader benefit of society, rather than dragging outdated patterns of work and family into a future that no longer fits. By re-conceiving the map of our lives, we may reimagine ways of making our days and decades happier, saner, and more fulfilling – for everyone.
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