Work, family, and caring for aging parents, there’s no doubt that middle-age brings with it some of the biggest challenges. But, according to an innovative roadmap for retirement, that could all change.

According to the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, Laura Carstensen, we have it all wrong when it comes to mapping out retirement these days.

The Problem with Today’s Retirement Strategy

One problem with a one size fits all retirement plan—of quitting work in the mid-sixties—is that people are living much longer today than they used to.

For example, a 40-year-old woman today, can expect to live, on average, another 45 years, and 5 percent of women in their mid-life years, will live to see 100. If you are a 40-year-old man, on the other hand, you can expect to live another 42 years. For most people, those remaining years will involve being able to stay active and even continue to work—provided your career does not involve physical labor. “So why are we still packing all of our career and family obligations into a few frantic decades?” asks Carstensen.

What is a Marathon Career?

Instead of working 40 years to what used to be the ripe old age of 65, Carstensen suggests that retirees plan for a “marathon career,” that would last longer, throughout the lifespan, but account for long breaks to have time for family obligations, advanced learning, and other non-work-related responsibilities.

“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.”

Carstensen says that more than any time in human history people are living healthier and longer lives. She specializes in the redesign of institutions that can accommodate the longer, healthier lifespans of today.

Halting work abruptly during the mid-60’s (the time when Americans are eligible for Social Security benefits) is not financially sound for many older adults; neither is the loss of social connections and sudden loss of purpose that retirees oftentimes experience. These factors result in a psychologically unhealthy situation for retirees, who become at higher risk for all types of age-related illnesses and earlier mortality (death) rates.

The Solution

According to Carstensen, the work one does during the lifespan should be redistributed throughout a longer period of time, and education, as well as work apprenticeships, should be extended. When young adults begin to plan their families, it’s a good time to take a break, stay home, and simply focus on family life for a few years. Then, they can return to work during the middle-age-years, and careers could stretch out, transitioning to part-time—with full retirement age of around 80.


Carstensen’s remapping idea would be an innovative retirement plan, perhaps one that has never been implemented—primarily because the median age of death was much younger as we go back in time. In reference to our current one-size fits all, retirement plan, “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.”


Quartz at Work