Redesigning the Course of Our Lives

"Instead of a straight line from education to work to retirement, imagine a life course with loops and curves, as phases shift back and forth, sometimes repeating or overlapping in different ways."


Debra B. Whitman
Executive Vice President and Chief Public Policy Officer,  AARP

As a busy working mom, I spend most of my day racing against the clock. I run from one meeting to the next, drop off my kids at school and soccer fields, and then hurry back home to cook dinner and spend meaningful time with my family.

But even as someone who works on aging for a living, I have been slow to realize that time is actually expanding. Our busy days still last just 24 hours, of course, but people are living longer, adding more years to our lifetimes.

Living longer provides us with an incredible opportunity: If we could just capture some of that precious time that has been added to the end of our lives and use it now, it would open up vast new possibilities for our current days and weeks.

And it would do even more. If we could take advantage of this untapped resource when we are younger, we would greatly enhance our well-being when we are older.

I’ve come to see the barrier to this as a problem of design.

For most of us, the current progression of life includes three distinct phases. We go to school, we go to work, and finally we retire. End of story.

But if we had the option to tinker with these phases, how would we redesign our lives?

To be time shifters, we need to think about the traditional course of life in new, imaginative ways. Instead of a straight line from education to work to retirement, imagine a life course with loops and curves, as phases shift back and forth, sometimes repeating or overlapping in different ways. Periods of work could be interspersed with chapters of learning, paving the way for new careers, new experiences and new options.

We don’t need to be stuck in the rigid life stages of our parents’ generation. Why not borrow time in our “working years” to gain new skills, or use part of our “retirement years” to keep on earning money with those new skills?

A more flexible design of our lives can pave the way for more years of fulfilling experience and financial security.

But it won’t happen by accident. Making the most of these exciting possibilities will require change in our institutions, our social policies and the way we think about our own lives.

Importantly, redesigning the life course is a way to disrupt aging, an essential goal that is explained by AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins of this edition of The Journal (see From the CEO -  Disrupt Aging: The Global Imperative.) AARP’s push to “disrupt aging” recognizes that people should be defined by who they are, not how old they are, and that individuals should be able to make contributions at any age.

When that happens, all of society benefits.

For many people, the traditional life course doesn’t make sense anymore. A growing number of older workers face a future of financial insecurity and see limited options to help themselves.

These pressures are making it more important for people to stay productive later in life, and to preserve the health and skill they need to continue earning income.

At the same time, modern economies need the know-how of experienced workers. If the baby boomer generation exits the workforce too quickly, many employers could face a shortage of skills. Experienced workers offer expertise, institutional knowledge and stability that can prove highly valuable to their employers.

Fortunately, changes in technology are making it easier for people to stay in the workforce.

In advanced, knowledge-based economies, most workers can keep on contributing as long as they stay mentally sharp. Technology also makes it easier to work remotely, giving an assist to those who do not wish to commute or who want flexible hours.

But people who wish to redesign their own life course still face many obstacles. Our basic institutions and public programs also must be redesigned.

In the United States and most other developed nations, public attitudes, social institutions, government policies (including financing for education, training and retirement) and employers all assume a traditional progression from birth to work to retirement 
to death.

Consider Social Security or other public retirement systems. These kinds of programs are designed for a world in which you work until a certain age and then stop. From then on, you depend on pensions and savings but no longer on earnings.

Yet we know that many older workers desire new career options or need fresh skills as demand for their longtime occupations declines over the years. The problem is they typically cannot afford to quit their jobs and pay for education to put opportunities in reach.

This is not an insurmountable challenge. It just requires some innovative thinking.

What if workers could claim an education benefit from a public retirement program before they retire? This could increase their choices in life—and at a cost the system can absorb. (The worker’s retirement benefits could be adjusted so the education benefit would be budget neutral.) It might even strengthen the retirement system, as more individuals hold off claiming benefits and continue to pay taxes.

That’s just one example. Many public programs designed for a linear life progression could be redesigned to support a time-shifted life course.

One key would be to find new ways to support lifelong learning, which is a critical strategy for people to thrive in the world that is taking shape. Online education is giving people more low-cost options to gain new skills, but much more is required. To help people redesign the course of their lives, the culture of educational institutions must be transformed to welcome people of all ages.

This will require a dramatic change in the way we think about colleges and all educational institutions. Potentially, this could affect curriculum, services offered, class schedules and an awareness of the school’s very mission.

In this new world, the college student body will no longer be overwhelmingly composed of students in their late teens and 20s. Students the age of their parents and grandparents would be more widely represented, and the traditional college campus will need to transform to support all ages.

Employers will also need to be engaged in supporting individuals as they follow a more flexible life course. Workplace policies affecting leave time, scheduling, telecommuting, training, development and retirement all have the potential to support or impede those who want to use time in innovative ways. Leave models that support time out of the workplace for family caregivers are essential. In many cases, employers can adapt existing policies for maternity and paternity leave to help family caregivers who face enormous, time-consuming responsibilities. 

There is a strong business case for this: At any moment, workers of different ages are trying to step up the ladder, step off it or move sideways into new roles. By implementing strategies to support these efforts, employers will improve productivity and worker morale. Organizations with the right policies will prosper, attracting talent and an energized labor force.

In the end, redesigning the life course will require much from individuals themselves.

Thinking more holistically about the span of our lives can influence the decisions we make today. Investing time in our own health through regular exercise and healthy diets can pay off for many years. Finding ways to lower stress is a personal investment that can yield rewards far down the road when we want to remain productive. The goal should be to recognize that time in which we are active and healthy is a valuable asset, and that there is much people can do to optimize and extend it.

When you are young, it may be hard to plan for a phase of life that may be decades away. But young people have the most to gain by looking ahead, because they have the most time to work with.

All segments of society stand to profit as individuals take steps to redesign their life progressions. National economies will be strengthened by an infusion of skill and energy, and individuals will be empowered to live more rewarding, secure lives. 

Seizing on the possibilities brought by our added years will enable us to accomplish things that earlier generations could only dream about.

about the author

Debra Whitman is AARP’s chief public policy officer, leading policy development, analysis and research, as well as global thought leadership supporting and advancing the interests of individuals 50-plus and their families. She oversees AARP’s Public Policy Institute, AARP Research, Office of Policy Development and Integration, Thought Leadership, and AARP International.

Dr. Whitman is an authority on aging issues, with extensive experience in national policymaking, domestic and international research, and the political process. An economist, she is a strategic thinker whose career has been dedicated to solving problems affecting economic and health security, and other issues related to population aging.


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