Longevity In America: It’s a Whole New Age

ernestine-shepherd-in-the-gym “You’re not getting old; you’re getting ready.”
-Ernestine Shepherd, the world’s oldest female competitive body builder.

The numbers are in, and people are living longer! The CDC calculates that overall life expectancy in the U.S. is presently 78.7 years, with women outliving men by an average of 5 years, or 81 years vs. 76 for men. (Longevity in America or anywhere else is one area where there is no gender equality.)

Some of the reasons for the increase in life expectancy include:

  • Advances in healthcare. Deaths from heart disease, stroke are on the decline, and diseases such as diabetes can be managed more successfully than 20 or 30 years ago.
  • Health-conscious habits. More senior citizens are prioritizing their health by remaining active, eating right, and taking supplements.
  • Continuing care retirement communities. Aging Americans have better access to help or care as needed while maintaining active lives in a supportive community setting.

The Longer You’ve Lived, the Longer You can Expect to Live!

The life expectancy ages are actually misleading, as they represent averages that include the few who pass away at younger ages. For those who are have already reached their 60’s and 70’s, life expectancy is longer still. According to data compiled by the Social Security Administration and the American Academy of Actuaries:

  • A man reaching age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 84.3;
  • A non-smoking man who has reached 84 is likely to live long enough to celebrate his 92nd birthday.
  • A woman turning age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 86.6; and
  • A non-smoking woman who is 86 or 87 will live to an average of age 95!

In spite of occasional political rhetoric to the contrary, we think that the longevity trend is very good news – especially given the alternative! However, it does represent a tremendous challenge if Americans insist on retiring at 65 with inadequate savings, as Social Security was never designed to be a retirement plan.

Currently, there are 2.8 workers for every one person being supported by Social Security. As the population ages, that ratio is expected to reach two workers for each person supported by Social Security in the next 20 years. That is not a sustainable trend!

As the longevity in America continues to increase (and we hope it does), one thing remains clear: we have to re-think the whole concept of retirement and living a lengthy and productive life.

Is 80 The New 65?

cool fashion elder couple with electric guitar

According to Kim Butler’s Busting The Retirement Lies,  the whole concept of retirement started less than a hundred years ago. The idea firmly took root largely as the result of the Social Security Act, which was passed in 1935. Butler also notes that the word “retiree” didn’t enter the lexicon until the 1940s.

In 1935, the average life expectancy was a mere 61.7 years, and it probably seemed logical to set the arbitrary retirement age at 65. However, with a realistic expectation of living beyond 80, it is now useful to set aside some of the outmoded models of what retirement looks like, and ask if retirement is even a worthy goal! 

The Challenges Of Living Longer 

In some financial circles, increased life expectancy is seen as being more of a “risk factor” than an advantage. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that half of U.S. workers have no private pensions and one-third of Americans have set aside no savings for retirement. And among those receiving Social Security benefits, a third rely on that monthly check for 90% or more of their incomes.

As of late 2014, the average benefit was just below $1300, which is clearly not enough for most people to live on! If a senior needs assisted living, they can expect to pay $4,000 or more per month in most areas of the country.

Then there is the issue of “retirement plans.” If you have a traditional pension, IRA or 401k plan in place and you originally planned on retiring at 65, it might not be elastic enough to stretch for two or more decades. Even if your savings have been calculated to account for inflation, it has been shown that the Consumer Price Index cost-of-living calculations do NOT keep pace with real world inflation.

Even if typical retirement plans are becoming less viable, we can start by saving more – we recommend 20% – and we can also reframe our expectations. Beginning retirement at 75 or 80 gives us 10-15 more years of earning and saving.

For those who can easily afford to retire at age 65 or earlier, there may still be better, more interesting options than a life of leisure. Below are some examples of people who have already explored ways to make their long lives fulfilling and even prosperous! 

The Changing Face of Late-Life Careers and Lifestyles 

aging-CS-LewisPoppy Bridger retired at the age of 69. Three years later, she used her life savings to purchase the lab she retired from. The business brought in about $350,000 a year and she ran it until she passed away in 2013 at the age of 89. She turned “retirement” into a prosperous second act.

Also consider R. Nelson Nash, the founder of the Infinite Banking Concept. Born in 1931, he had this to say in a December, 2011 interview with the Lara-Murphy Report: “There is no way to convince me to retire! This life is too much fun to miss out!”

Nash went on to say that people need a purpose in life and asserts that government-legislated retirement ages are arbitrary. Nash still delivers dozens of seminars a year throughout the United States, speaking on the financial ideas outlined in his classic book, Becoming Your Own Banker.

Ernestine Shepherd (pictured above) began body-building at age 71 and holds the world record for the oldest competitive body-builder. What began as a desire to get in shape to shake off her sedentary habits as a former secretary became a way of life as well as a vocation. Ernestine is now a personal trainer at her gym and leads exercises classes, inspiring many with her dedicated example. She has been featured in documentaries and “lives to inspire senior women to reach their physical potential.”

Young at Heart is an acclaimed documentary that highlights how one group of seniors is breaking the mold by performing contemporary rock, pop, and even punk music across the United States and beyond.  Watch the trailer below:

The Young at Heart Chorus bills themselves as “seniors behaving badly,” but it’s all in fun. The minimum age for the choir is 73, and they specialize in performing songs not normally sung by older adults, including songs The Ramones, James Brown, The Clash and Coldplay. The movie is touching as well as entertaining… prepare to laugh as well as cry!

Creating A Model That Works For You 

Deferring retirement (or “forgetting to retire” altogether) can not only provide additional savings but also enormous opportunities for continued growth, personal fulfillment and exploring long-term prosperity. Consider models outside of the “work until 65, then quit cold turkey” plan. Some possibilities:

  • For those who enjoy their work, simply extending work, part or full time, may be an excellent choice.
  • For some, combining periods of work with sabbaticals and periods of travel or recreation will be an appealing model.
  • For others, meaningful volunteer work (with or without part-time paid work on the side) will provide meaning and a sense of contribution.
  • For still others, the perfect strategy may be to use “retirement” to start a business, write books, or do what they’ve always wanted to do… and get paid for it!

The aforementioned Busting The Retirement Lies by Kim Butler is an invaluable resource for redefining your attitudes towards your later years. It will inspire possibilities for a rich and fulfilling adventure far beyond 65.

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