How to Make Longer Lives Better For More People

Ken Dychtwald and BlackRock’s Anne Ackerley were among the experts with ideas that could make a big difference.

By Eleanor O'Sullivan

The theme was familiar and so was the urgency — the critical need for early education in basic finance so that by the time one reaches retirement, the knowledgeable retiree has escaped the woes that can come with being strapped for money: ill health, stunted achievement, splintered community life and social disconnect.

“The fact that we don’t teach financial awareness in grade school or high school is nuts!’’ said Ken Dychtwald, 73, founder and CEO of consulting firm Age Wave.

He spoke during the segment “Anticipating and Responding to the Big Changes around Retirement” at the recent fourth annual Century Summit 2023 presented by Stanford University, the Longevity Project and the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program.

“Shame on us! People need to make financial decisions not out of fear or terror. Consider that only 30% of Americans have a financial advisor! We (the world) will soon have two billion people over 60. We are kind of out of whack — like, come on — there are problems,’’ Dychtwald said.

He also pointed to a number of tough challenges to ensuring a better second half for more people but also suggested ideas to address them.

Gender inequities

Among those problems? Women, who live on average five years longer than men earn $410,000 less over a lifetime than men. Also factoring in women’s skimpier medical and work benefits, the total differential over a lifetime comes to a whopping $1.1 million, Dychtwald said.

“The financial industry talks about paying more attention to women but 80% of them are men,’’ he said.

Racial disparities

Gender isn’t the only dividing line between the haves and have-nots of successful retirement. During the Century Summit panel “The Big Idea: Should We Reinvent the Life-Funding Models for An Era of Change?” Auora Harris, senior director of regional strategy for the nonprofit Young Invincibles, said race persists in defining success in life.

“We are still seeing occupational segregation among the Blacks who are in lower-level jobs: they have no opportunities for a successful retirement,” said Harris.

“We have to open access to capital for young people and automatic enrollment in savings plans. Ultimately, the idea is taking seriously investment in young people;’’ she said.

Fellow panelist Anne Ackerley, managing director and head of BlackRock’s Retirement Group, is alarmed at the disparity of retirement preparedness among genders and races.

“I worry a lot about the current system, how it doesn’t service women and people of color. Today, 26% of women retire into poverty. Women get to retirement in the United States having made 30 to 40% less than men, or 82 cents on the dollar, because of the gender gap. That’s also because of being unpaid caregivers — time out of work does not help women to save,’’ Ackerley said.

“For people of color, the situation is even more difficult,’’’ she said.

No access to retirement plans

Financial insecurity about one’s so-called golden years is widespread in the United States. Karen Biddle Andres of the Aspen Institute, moderator of the life-funding-models panel, said “57 million people do not have access to retirement savings (plans) at work and pension plans are a thing of the past.’’

She lauded states such as California and Oregon that require businesses to create savings plans for all employees.

“People have to have a way to save, we have to make it easier. We need to talk about emergency savings and the connection between short-term and long-term savings. We have to get people to save short term before they can save long term. We’re working on legislation on that.

Tobias Read, Oregon’s state treasurer, also advocated for easier access to retirement plans and earlier education in financial literacy.

“It’s important to get workers enrolled early on in their careers in savings. It should start at their first job, at 14 or 15, so they know the powerful forces of compound interest,’’ Read said.

He said the Oregon state legislature recently passed a bill that will require high school students to take courses in financial literacy and planning to graduate.

Caregiving not recognized as work

“What I also think about is caregiving. I’m no expert on caregiving, but we must find a way that it is recognized as work, to think about how many companies provide paid child maternity leave: 35% of companies provide paid maternity leave,’’ Ackerley said.

“We must find a way to give women, and men, credit for the care that they give. There is a bill out there that would give caregivers credit up against their Social Security,’’ Ackerley said.

College debt

Harris proposed cancellation or forgiveness of college loans to needy students.

“There is a generation of college students coming out of college $60,000 in debt, and making about $30,000 to $40,000 a year, but they’re still sending money back home. That is so many young people’s story, trying to make money but being stuck because the system is not investing in them.

“Coming off the pandemic, many of them got pushed off the Medicaid emergency plan, and you’re looking at unsustainable wages. Homeless youth want to go to college, too, but how do we fund our life?’’

Social isolation

Chip Conley, a founder of the Modern Elder Academy in California, said social isolation is a pervasive problem, whether one is needy or able to afford home workouts on expensive machinery.

“We should think of social wellness as something we can do together, not fixate on how many calories we had or how many steps we walked today. Riding your Peloton at home is not social wellness.’’

While speaking during the conference session “The Big Idea: Redefining Community in an Era of Longer Life,” he asked the Century Summit 2023 audience at Stanford University to stop and take a few minutes to introduce themselves to each other. He had a motive.

“The number one variable to living a longer, healthier, happier life is how socially connected we feel,’’ Conley said.

He said that the average life expectancy of residents of communities developed by Modern Elder Academy, which is expanding further into Baja and into Santa Fe, N.M. is 90.

“Research has found that when people shift to connecting, they gain 7.5 years of life, more years than if you stop smoking at 50 and or if you start exercising at 50. People are thirsty for communities,’’ he said.

Conley, 62, said that the TV sitcom, “Golden Girls’’ celebrated the “joy of living together,’’ and added that 70% of those over 65 who are living alone are women.

“Why not create homes for communal living? It’s a great way to reduce the societal cost of caregiving, which is out of reach for 90% of Americans.’’

Formidable tasks

Biddle Andres, director of Impact Strategy at the Aspen Institute, which works on resolving social problems, realized when the institute began studying the challenges of the new 30-year-long retirement, that the task was formidable.

“We needed to ‘boil the ocean:’ We can’t just work on retirement, or just on education, or early education for children or on social norms, we need to be rethinking life in its entirety. There is an urgency; there’s no time to waste. My fear is that we will sleepwalk through this age where we have the opportunity to make radical change. We need to be rethinking life and how we live. That’s why we’re here.’’

In a four-decade career in journalism, Eleanor O’Sullivan has reviewed many books on best practices for financial advisors, has written for Financial Advisor and the USA Today network, and was movie critic for the Asbury Park Press.

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