The Pope’s recent resignation is about a lot more than religion and politics. It’s about a new reality that we’re facing – as individuals, as families, as nations – in how we experience the later years of our lives.
When this country was founded in 1766, life expectancy at birth was 35 years. By the 1900s, it was 47 years. It was a lot easier to imagine a Pope’s lifetime appointment in those days. But lifespan continued to increase over the decades, and in the year 2011, the number was 78 years.
All of our institutions, all of our opinions, and all of our expectations are rooted in these numbers. We have learned from our grandparents, great-grandparents, and even older ancestors about what it means to age. Understanding the past is the best way to understand the future, right?
Not in this case. By 2050, projected life expectancy at birth will be well into the 80s, and some scientists suggest that a majority of children born today will someday be centenarians. It begs us to reevaluate how we expect to age, and just as importantly, how we expect those around us to age.
I believe that the Pope’s resignation will start prompting us to ask questions about aging in today’s (and tomorrow’s) world. For example:
- Are lifetime appointments realistic anymore, with people living so long and inevitably developing physical and/or mental health challenges? After age 65, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease doubles every five years – and after age 85, the risk reaches almost 50%.
- What does retirement look like when it could last for 30-40 years or more? Is it even a valid model, as currently defined?
- What do these numbers mean for family caregiving? Should today’s younger generations just start assuming that they’ll be family caregivers down the road? 29% of the U.S. population already fills that role – can we even imagine what the numbers will be in the future?
By not asking these questions, and seeking out answers, we are covering our eyes to the realities of the future. I don’t mean to instill a sense of despair; on the contrary, this should be a call to action. I firmly believe that the countries and companies who become creative and forward-looking in how they redefine aging will be the ones that succeed – and many are already starting to do this.
But we’re really only at the beginning of the changes that are coming. The story of the Pope’s resignation will be replicated time and time again in the coming years – though perhaps not on so grand a scale. We’d better start paying attention.