Five Reasons You Have No Plan for Your Long Life


Made possible by Hurricane Ivan - my closet of Ikea.
Made possible by Hurricane Ivan – my closet of Ikea.

In 2006 after Hurricane Ivan propelled 16 inches of water into our house, my husband and I did what most everyone else on the Gulf Coast did. We rebuilt our home. 

For over two years, we lived like nomads and dealt with insurance issues, which wasn’t much fun, but the result is a house with every built-in I ask for and new everything. 

Every room is picture perfect, as far as I’m concerned.

So I’m baffled as to why I continue to stack up copies in my office closet of Dwell with ingenious ideas of storage design, how to build luxury modular units in lost valleys and glamorous photos of furnished industrial lofts in Belgium. 

Maybe I think next time a hurricane hits, I’ll be ready. I won’t be stunned by loss, but instead, inspired to move into the future with grand ideas and creative juices flowing.

Metaphorically, my stack of Dwells is really about how preparedness can eliminate  angst when faced with unknowns. 

Too bad, the magazines didn’t fall on my head to remind me of this critical message when the inevitable challenge of designing my life for the third age rushed in.  

For a person knowledgeable about passages in adult development, I was ill-prepared.  

I wish I had a do-over on that transition.

Why Late-Life Design is So Hard

It’s no secret we are living longer (I would discover it was a lot longer than I supposed) and no secret that in your mid-50s, transition into another stage of adult development is around the corner. 

Like others, I arrived at this corner with a string of achievements during my lifetime to be proud of, good health, abundant energy and a financial plan – albeit one whacked about by the economy.

Still, the future could be bright. Yes? 

Why didn’t I feel that?

Spanish lesson's questions about life.
Spanish lesson’s questions about life.

Too much time parked on my office couch with morning coffee asking, “What now?” produced a soul-searching inertia.

The ticker tape of questions included:

Why should I choose a lower-key life that emphasizes leisure and a bucket list, but not work?

Why didn’t my future seem as exciting as it did when I turned twenty?

Why should I volunteer my talents when I wanted to get paid?

Why wasn’t I equipped for navigating this terrain of aging and longevity? 

A strategy and plan for my super-sized life appeared daunting, and exposed a blunder I had to own. I didn’t given my late-life design nor the necessary transition as much attention as I had other pivotal places in my life.  

Hence a sloppy entry into the big jump to a third age. I am not alone; many are befuddled and bewildered.

With an extra thirty years for the average person, why do these newly minted lives in which most people will reach a very old age seem so hard?

“This is a uniquely a twenty-first century question,” states Laura L. Carstensen, professor of psychology at Stanford University and founding director of Stanford Center on Longevity.   

The Big Picture of Planning Future Life after 50

I tracked down and read every available source of information needed to plot a course through this third age, as the French call it; I can report the pipeline of understanding, skill and know-how is just now filling up.  

Nonetheless, navigating a transitional terrain is much less complicated with a prior aerial view of the best information found.

Here  is your big picture map:

1.    We are in the midst of the “biggest demographic adventure in history.” According to Carstensen, the number of centenarians in the United States is roughly four times the number just ten years ago and will likely exceed 10 million by 2050.  . 

As a result, everything will change -education, work, financial markets, retirement and how we choose to live and work during our lifetimes.

2.    Old age is a new phenomenon creating new territory, yet unexplored. Yes, stories of late blooming entrepreneurs, octogenarians pushing physical boundaries and ninety-year-old lovebirds prevail, but not enough information exists to create surefooted pathways for the rest of us. All we know is we’re breezing through our 60’s and 70’s, past eighty and ninety and beyond. You don’t feel old at 75 because you aren’t old but how to carve out productive longevity is largely ignored and processes or tools unavailable.

3.    We lack new social benchmarks.  You can get lost easily when social benchmarks like when to get an education, marry, work and retire don’t apply. These markers evolved when lives were half as long. If you aren’t careful, you’ll find yourself on the brink of a next phase of life – like retirement – buying into traditional thinking that truly doesn’t make any sense anymore.

4.     Excitement is missing from old age. Carstensen poses this question and your response could be an uncomfortable chuckle: When’s the last time you caught yourself daydreaming about your exciting life after 60?  

When the future is hazy, chagrin replaces excitement. Once we poured hours into daydreaming about choosing a career, finding the right mate and starting families. The third age is a time to daydream and design things anew. The element of excitement – always an individual’s responsibility – cannot be secondary to  design.

5.    Why not work to enlarge a career arc not phase it out? There’s a thousand good ways to life productively until 90, but we are wedged into accepting that careers are better replaced by volunteerism, being super grandma or playing bridge while cruising the Med.  

Working identity – a fabric of our entire life – is defined by what we do, professional activities that engage us, and the company we keep. While trying to escape numbing corporate politics or dull-as-dishwater work, creating a late-in-life future without work is a drastic change of story and creates a fragile self.  

Still Unsure How You’ll Navigate Your Longevity?

 A hurricane’s landing is unknown; but human development life stages are destiny.

While each individual arrives at the crossroads of a the last third of life with a unique composition of data and experiences, a good comprehensive playbook – one taking into account longevity, societal norms, our true finances, and the pillars of the wellbeing (career is number one) is crucial.

While this information does not provide your specific plan, it does lead to the thoughtful preparation which could result in the very best time of life.

If you are post50, I encourage you to get to work. Give a voice to your future life. Be defiant. Challenge your thinking.

You can  leave a legacy of productively longevity for future generations (your grand-children, nieces or nephews) to envy enough to emulate.

Bravo in advance.

From a collection of stone faces - Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno in Cuenca, Ecuador.
From a collection of stone faces – Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno in Cuenca, Ecuador.




About Barbara Pagano

Barbara Pagano,Ed.S., author and speaker, influenced over 3,500 executives in organizations to achieve higher performance. She is now on a mission to help individuals extend their career arcs and craft lifestyles of productive longevity.
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6 Responses to Five Reasons You Have No Plan for Your Long Life

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  5. Lisa,
    Your comment contains more wisdom, insight and value than many blogs I read on a daily basis. Thank you.

    Indeed, current research shows that volunteering late-in-life has a positive effect on well being and health. And as you point out, gratitude is often found as we give to others in need.

    But for many, in order to ground their sense of meaning, something deeper than volunteering is necessary. Involving oneself in work that has merit and getting paid should be more central (and showcased) as an extraordinary and valuable option for productive longevity.

    Putting our ideas together (a-kind-of-Lisa-and-Barbara-dream), we can envision a world where late-in-life individuals work for as many hours as they choose, get paid, enjoy their freedom AND choose to volunteer.

    Has a good vibe to it, don’t you think?

  6. Lisa Grubbs says:

    So I have been thinking about your post. As a mid 40s female I often think about what life will look like when my four boys (half of them approaching their teen years) are grown and out of the house. My husband who is a doctor, will most likely not retire early due to private secondary educations we have paid for and what we will be paying in college educations for all of them as well…not to mention needing to save something to retire on at some point. I have chosen during this phase of my life to run a non profit organization that I currently take no salary for so that funding goes into programs for those we serve right now as we grow the organization.

    There were a couple of references you made about volunteerism in your piece that I found interesting and I wanted to add a thought for consideration. While nobody should ever feel as if their only choice in the latter years is volunteering or that it is just “something to do because your career is over”….when you are searching for purpose in life perhaps a good dose of doing something for others isn’t such a bad idea. When a great deal of life has been spent on meeting needs of self and family, looking for the next big thing, being successful, etc exploring the true meaning of life outside of ourselves can have some pretty shocking revelations about the world in which we live – not to mention it can give us a good dose of reality. Finding meaning and purpose in life can often be brought to the forefront when you are faced with looking into the faces of those less fortunate than yourself and realizing that you have abundance beyond measure with which to work. I don’t mean to say that everyone should or must volunteer but I would like to point out that as a mother of four, with a husband who is often gone “saving the world” in his own small way, and a household to manage I find great satisfaction at the end of the day having served others (for free) instead of wondering what I can achieve, succeed at or be that only fulfills me….in the end we are not islands unto ourselves…we live in a world that when we work to contribute to making it better for someone else great rewards come our way that we never imagined and aren’t always quantifiable.

Would love to hear what you are thinking.