Stanford researcher says we shouldn't start working full-time until we're 40

(This article by Corinne Purtill was originally published in Quartz at Work on June  27, 2018).

Climbing ladders

Climb the ladder at your own pace.

For people smack in the mad mid-life rush of managing full-time careers, dependent children, and aging parents, nothing feels so short in supply as time.

But there is time to get it all done, says psychologist Laura Carstensen, the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. The only problem is that we’ve arranged life all wrong.

A woman who is 40 years old today can expect to live another 45 years, on average, while 5% will live to see their 100th birthday. The average 40-year-old man will live another 42. For many people, most of those years will be healthy enough to continue work that doesn’t involve intense physical labor. So why are we still packing all of our career and family obligations into a few frantic decades?

Rather than a four-decade professional sprint that ends abruptly at 65, Carstensen argues, we should be planning for marathon careers that last longer but have more breaks along the way for learning, family needs, and obligations outside the workplace.

“We need a new model,” Carstensen says of the current norms around career pacing. The current one “doesn’t work, because it fails to recognize all the other demands on our time. People are working full-time at the same time they’re raising children. You never get a break. You never get to step out. You never get to refresh. . . .We go at this unsustainable pace, and then pull the plug.”

Longevity, as Carstensen sees it, is not about the biohacked immortalism popular in other parts of Silicon Valley. Her work focuses instead on redesigning institutions to accommodate the lives that people actually have—lives that are longer and in many cases healthier than at any time in human history.

Stopping work abruptly at 66, the year current US retirees are eligible to claim full Social Security benefits, isn’t practical financially for a growing number of seniors. And given the sudden loss of status, social interaction, and purpose that can follow retirement from a valued career, it’s often not a psychologically healthy move, either.

Instead, Carstensen says, a life’s work should be redistributed across the longer time frame many people can reasonably expect. Education and apprenticeships could stretch longer, she says, through the years when many people are starting their families and have young children at home. Full-time ideally would begin around the age of 40, rather than in our early 20s. Careers would be longer, with a gradual transition to part-time work in the later years before full retirement around age 80.

It’s a very different road map from the one we’re currently on. It comes with trade-offs: more years living the lean life of a student or trainee, occasionally having to bow out of plans with the grandkids to finish work. But many of us already are making trade-offs under the old model, in industries that are not yet accustomed to accommodating parents or older workers who want to work part-time.

And the scramble will only continue, unless we reshape the deeply ingrained patterns most of us follow when it comes to career and family.

“There is no real reason why we need to work this way. The hardest thing is, how does [change] start?” Carstensen said. But “once it starts, there’s very little question that it’s going to roll on.”