Retirement in an Era of Long Life

The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.

By Laura L. Carstensen, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center on Longevity at Stanford University

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- It seems that national discussions about retirement quickly turn to the long-term viability of Social Security. The problem with focusing too closely on Social Security is that the conversation quickly devolves into one about budgets. The problem with retiring in the early 60s isn't just a problem for Social Security. It's much bigger. We are squandering the opportunity to redesign life.

Life expectancy increased by nearly thirty years in the last century and we've tacked them all on at the end. It's not just Social Security that's in trouble. The current model of work and retirement isn't working for most Americans. In the 1930s, it made sense to get an education, work until 65 and retire. But now that people are more commonly living into their 80s, 90s or beyond, that means Americans are routinely spending two and three decades in retirement.

The goal of saving enough in forty years to support themselves for another twenty or thirty is a tall order, no matter what state Social Security may be in by the time they reach retirement. Only six in ten American workers are saving for retirement, and nearly half of them have squirreled away less than $25,000. Americans are not lazy or stupid. The model of retirement is so out of reach, people give up before they try.

Not only do we have older people who can't afford to retire, American workers are toiling hard, all the while they are being bombard with admonitions to save for their kids' college tuitions, pay down mortgages and pay off their credit card debt. Young parents are the most stressed age group in the workforce; they often feel that they must relegate family needs to second place in order to keep up with the demands of their jobs.

Because families and careers are pursued simultaneously, the middle of life is packed so full that parents are missing their children's first steps, first words, school performances, and other milestones. And contrary to popular opinion, when aging parents need help, younger family members genuinely want to help, if only they could find the time. The greatest irony is that although most Americans will live longer than ever before in history, in their day-to-day lives, they feel that they do not have enough time.

The problem with the dismal failure to prepare well for retirement isn't due to lack of discipline or character. The problem is that we are living our lives according to a model that was built for short lives, not long ones. We have an unprecedented opportunity to rethink work and retirement altogether.

With a little imagination, we can develop healthy models of work where we work many more years but enjoy shorter work weeks and longer vacations. We can institutionalize sabbaticals and retraining and we can modify stalwart institutions, like Social Security, so that they more flexibly provide the support Americans' need in ways that improve quality of life at all ages. It's this sort of retirement discussion that is long overdue.

Laura L. Carstensen is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center on Longevity at Stanford University. She is author of A Long Bright Future: Happiness, Health and Financial Security in an Age of Increased Longevity.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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