Longer Lives: New Paths Forward

Dr. Dawn Carr presented some of these ideas at the February 2019 Policy Pub. Go here to listen to her complete talk.

Humans are not very good at imagining what life is going to be like decades into the future. As a result, we rely on assumptions about our future based on what we see in the media, or what others have experienced in our family. This is particularly true for retirement, and it’s a serious problem.

The media often portrays inaccurate versions of retirement. A quick google search with the word “retirement” provides a slew of images of healthy, older adults driving in a convertible or sitting on the beach. The implication is that retirement is a phase of life that is basically one long vacation. And in case isn’t obvious, that is far from the reality for most Americans. Not only do most older Americans not have the financial means to live a life like this, the period in which we are still healthy enough to be actively engaged but are no longer in our “career” phase of life – the Third Age – can be the most meaningful period of our lives.

Google image search for the word “retirement.”

The Third Age is a relatively new phase of life and is the consequence of significant increases in longevity coupled with a relatively stable retirement age. Most individuals do not plan their future with this life phase in mind, and we have not yet developed a clear script for this period of life. We know that our early lives are supposed to include education, the middle the time for development of our families and careers, but what comes next? The Third Age today, and what is likely moving forward for many older people, increasingly includes a mix of a variety of activities, especially paid and/or unpaid work.

Changes in pension plans have left many older adults without sufficient wealth to retire and emergence of the “gig” economy means that many people lack the kind of financial security they need to completely stop working in later life. However, many are unable (due to health) or uninterested in continuing to work as intensively as they did while they were in their career. A growing proportion of older workers find themselves leaving paid work only to return to a paid work position soon after (what is called “unretirement”). Alternatively, some individuals switch from full-time work to a job that includes fewer hours and less intensity. This might be a part-time job separate from the current job, or it may involve staying at their career job in a “phased” capacity. Either way, a growing proportion of older people are creating new pathways out of paid work, and less than half now leave full-time work directly never to return. The rest have made paid work a key component of their Third Age[1].

In addition to paid work, the Third Age is also a time that many older people engage in volunteer work. Volunteering for an organization can be meaningful, it gives older people a sense of purpose, and for many older people, it helps them maintain important social connections with others. About a third of people over older people in the US regularly volunteer, and nearly one in five in the early phases of later life (62-75) volunteer two hours or more per week, on average.

Cultivating an active “Third Age” by continuing to work or volunteer is not only beneficial for society, it is also beneficial to individuals. Besides the financial benefits related to paid work, paid and unpaid work is associated with delaying the period that typically follows the Third Age – the period of disability known as the “Fourth Age.” It is associated with numerous health benefits (decreased mortality risk, delayed disability and improvements in psychological health[2][3]). However, society as a whole also benefits from the many talents and abilities that our older adult population provides when they remain engaged in these activities[4].

Developing a roadmap for later life that includes a Third Age can help set up individuals for higher quality lives. However, making such plans are not the responsibility of individuals alone. There are significant disparities in the length and opportunities available during the Third Age. We need policies designed to ensure that young people today have resources throughout their lives so they can develop a meaningful Third Age, and in doing so, we will be able to utilize the knowledge, skills, and abilities of our current and future elders.


[1] Carr, D.C.,Taylor, M., Matz-Costa, C., & Gonzalez, E. “Alternative Retirement Trajectories In the Post-Recession Period: The Impact of Job Characteristics.” Under Review.

[2] Kail, B. L. & Carr, D. C. (2017). Successful aging in the context of the disablement process: Working and volunteering as moderators on the association between chronic conditions and subsequent functional limitations. Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 72 (2), pp. 340-350. Doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbw060

[3] Carr, D. C., Kail, B. L. & Rowe, J. W. (2018) The relation of volunteering and subsequent changes in physical disability in older adults. Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 73(3), 511-521. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbx102

[4] Carr, D. C., & Gunderson, J. (2016). The third age of life: Leveraging the mutual benefits of intergenerational engagement. Public Policy and Aging Report, 26 (3), 83-87. Doi: 10.1093/ppar/prw013

Dr. Dawn Carr is an assistant professor at Florida State University in the Department of Sociology and faculty associate at Pepper Institute for Aging and Public Policy. 

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