As the quip goes, 30 is the new 20, or 60 is the new 40, or whatever age you want to insert as the new "new." Boomers are delaying death (or at least trying to), and 20-somethings are delaying adulthood. We're all reinventing what it means to age. But so far, only our own personal imaginations are changing. The big institutions in our lives are slow to respond to "the big shift."
If you were to re-envision the future to fit the changing life course, where would you start? I started thinking about this question a few weeks ago when I read an article on architects and urban planners who are rethinking the apartment complex and condo living. The question popped up again as I read a wonderful article by the MacArthur Foundation's Research Network on an Aging Society with its forward-thinking ideas on reimagining the life course (not yet published or I'd link to it).
The question is also on my mind as I've delved over the past several years into the lives of Millennials. Twenty-somethings are delaying many of the major milestones of early life---moving away from home, getting married, starting a family, and now with the recession, getting a job. They are slow to achieve all those "milestones" we think of as marking one as an "adult." As a country, we've been preoccupied with this delay, ascribing it to spoiled children or bad parenting. We've been, in other words, looking backward to assign blame when we should have been looking ahead and embracing the changes. (check out the Network on Transitions to Adulthood for more on this slower path.)
As twenty-somethings slow down, their parents, the Boomers, are redefining the opposite end of the life course. They are working longer, for starters, and they are seeking different options after they do retire. They are also living longer.
So how are we going to cope and adjust to these big changes? What is going to happen to the current life course as we know it, and how will the institutions that we've built to fit one path through life need to be refitted to a new course? As one young woman asks in an article on millennials in Time Out Chicago, "Am I going to be paying off the bulk of my mortgage when I'm putting my kids through college?" Will she indeed? As she alludes to in that question, the shift ahead will play out in perhaps unforeseen ways.
Will all our milestones---marriage, parenthood, career peaks, retirement, infirmity, death-- just shift to the right along the time continuum, and if so, must we fundamentally rethink what defines these "big moments"? If your career peaks at age 55 instead of 45, owing to a delayed start, will that mean you're a more valuable worker to the firm at age 65 instead? And therefore will you have more leverage in changing jobs later in life or bargaining for a better raise?
Will having a wider spread of ages in the workforce make it easier to achieve that elusive work-life balance when older workers can fill the gaps at work when young workers need to take time off to raise their kids? This give and take could start to shift the conversation away from one of older generations taking resources from younger generations.
Another possibility: Will having children late mean one will have less time as a grandparent, and thus will there be more need for greater child care down the road? After all, if you have kids when you're 35, your grandkids probably won't be born until you're 70. And, as more women wait to have kids, a growing number will opt to have no children (or have no choice), which is already occurring. The share of childless women in their 40s reached a new peak. So what will that mean to this generation of Millennials growing old without the support of their children to help them in their doddering years?
What does this shifting life course mean for intergenerational obligation? Perhaps because mom and dad supported the millennials much farther into adulthood (as millennials will of their own children), it will spark a new sense of obligation to their parents later in life. Or, parents may be forced to rely more on their adult kids because they have little left over for their own retirement, as a result of this extended support.
All these questions raise the ultimate question: How do we design our cities and homes and schools and parks and hospitals, and government programs, with these changes in mind?
These big changes in the life course are bearing down on us. But instead of wringing our hands, we should start envisioning now new solutions to the inevitable. New forms of housing are one option. We could build more communal living spaces with small apartments (think hotel rooms) and larger shared spaces for cooking and socializing. Both young adults and older adults could find affordable homes there. We could establish a better system of high-quality child care centers for working parents. We could build homes for multiple generations, like the "mother-in-law" apartments in the three-flats that line Chicago's streets. We could re-imagine what "elderly" means and reinvent "retirement."
There are many other visionary ideas. What are yours? How can we re-envision social institutions for this changing life course?