Life expectancy in the U.S. has increased more in the 20th century than in all prior millennia combined, with as many as half of today’s 5-year-olds expected to live to 100 in the U.S.

Stanford is leading the way in the study of longevity and how to redesign the full life course. (Image credit: Getty Images)

But researchers say current cultural norms and social supports reflect life expectancies of about 50, and consequently, most people don’t have a good roadmap for how to move away from the traditional life stages of education, work, and retirement.

“We really need to change the way we live in fairly radical ways,” said Center for Longevity Director Laura L. Carstensen, the Fairleigh S. Dickinson Jr. Professor in Public Policy and professor of psychology. “We need to re-envision the life course, what it can look like today, and what the big challenges are that we need to address.”

Stanford centers that support such a re-envisioning include the Center on Longevity, Continuing Studies, the Distinguished Careers Institute, and the Emeriti/ae Council, among others. Each employs a different lens to tackle similar challenges – supporting people at different stages of life, whether embarking on a new career or redefining one’s purpose.

While nearly all universities have centers on aging to study important topics like dementia and age-related vulnerabilities, Stanford is leading the way in the study of longevity and how to redesign the full life course, Carstensen said. The multidisciplinary work spans all seven schools at Stanford and multiple independent labs.

“The excitement about possibilities is palpable,” Carstensen said. “Stanford can do for longevity what it did for communications technology in Silicon Valley. We can build around it and develop the medicines, technologies, new social scripts, and norms that can help people live well throughout very long lives that include lots of transitions.”

The Stanford Center on Longevity is a translational research center working to accelerate and implement scientific discoveries, technological advances, behavioral practices, and social norms so that century-long lives are healthy and rewarding.

“We see the tension that so many people feel about aging at the individual, population, and policy levels as reflective of a mismatch between the social and physical world we live in and the length of our lives,” Carstensen said.

To help address this, the Center has created the New Map of Life initiative, which plots new points on life’s course through nine domains central to longevity: early childhood, education, work, financial security, built environment, climate, health and technology, lifestyle and fitness, and intergenerational relationships.

“We should embrace the wonderful opportunities that longer lives present, as opposed to what our ancestors had to do, which was to live pretty scripted lives because life was short,” Carstensen said. “We’re now at a point where we don’t have to raise our children at the same time we reach the peak of our careers. We will transition through multiple stages of family, work, and education.”

Lifelong learning

Stanford Continuing Studies is an open learning community serving about 16,000 adults each year, including many going through career and life transitions. The median age of Continuing Studies students is 41 but ranges from 18 to 100.

“Courses like Your Next Life Chapter help students use design thinking methods to create goals and concrete plans for making important transitions – whether it’s launching a new career in their 50s or getting involved with initiatives that serve their communities,” said Jennifer Deitz, Continuing Studies director and associate dean. “Likewise, we offer enrichment courses that help students shift in new personal directions.”

One student took a writing course in her 80s and published her first children’s novel at 91, Deitz said. More than 60 percent of Continuing Studies students have advanced degrees, and they often embody the spirit of lifelong learners.

“This has been true of our program throughout its 30-year history, and if anything became more true during the pandemic, when we saw a significant increase in people wanting to take courses in creative fields and the humanities,” Deitz said. “I think it speaks to the power of the arts and the humanities to help people find solace, inspiration, connection, and community through difficult times.”

When older generations stay vital by pursuing creative passions or staying engaged in their professions and public service, the community is richer for it, said Dan Colman, dean of the Continuing Studies and Summer Session programs.

“With life spans and careers getting longer, adult students in our community increasingly find themselves at transition points, needing to reinvent themselves, and find new purpose,” Colman said. “Our lifelong learning programs offer a chance for renewal. And when this happens, it benefits both the students themselves and their larger community.”

‘New ways of being’

Life transitions are central to the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute (DCI), which helps accomplished people in midlife to renew their purpose, build community, and recalibrate their physical, emotional, and spiritual wellness.

The institute seeks exceptional individuals who have built a career of major accomplishments and would like to deepen their knowledge or embrace new fields, among other criteria for DCI fellows. DCI also fosters intergenerational engagement in an academic setting to help create a new paradigm for the university of the future.

DCI Executive Director Katie Connor said increased longevity presents an opportunity for higher education.

“We can empower people at the end of successful careers to be productive, engaged, and impactful – to give back in any number of ways,” Connor said. “Whether it’s through work or volunteerism, I think universities, colleges, and community colleges are uniquely positioned to serve this growing need.”

DCI’s curriculum provides intentional support for navigating transitions, Connor said, with community as the “secret sauce of DCI.”

“The program structure makes it so much easier and helps you see yourself in new ways of being, through coursework and also by engaging with people who haven’t known you for 40 years,” Connor said. “They don’t have you in a box so suddenly you have that freedom to explore again the feeling that you had when you went to college.”

DCI fellows often create purpose-driven pursuits to address important social issues and real-world problems. Fellows study alongside Stanford students, providing mentorship and demonstrating through their own career trajectories that there are many paths to success; helping to relieve the pressure many feel to choose the “right” career immediately, Connor said.

“These transitions happen for everyone, but it’s not a one size fits all proposition,” Connor said. “Every person approaches their transitions with different interests and needs, and they’re not just going to happen at 20 and 60. So we need different programs developed to address those needs in different communities at different life stages.”

Redefining a productive life

Like the rest of the population, Stanford’s emeriti are living longer than prior generations, and the Emeriti/ae Council is addressing how they can be better served and better serve the university.

“There’s been a waste of a very valuable resource and this group of people who not only have had decades of experience with the university but people who have really made significant contributions to the greatness of Stanford and would like to continue to make a contribution,” said Emeriti/ae Council Chair Iris F. Litt, the Marron and Mary Elizabeth Kendrick Professor in Pediatrics, Emerita.

“Every person approaches their transitions with different interests and needs, and they’re not just going to happen at 20 and 60. So we need different programs developed to address those needs in different communities at different life stages.”

—Katie Connor

Executive Director, Distinguished Careers Institute

Litt knows the work of transitions well; she’s also the co-director of the Center for Longevity and longtime director of research at DCI. Now, Litt is working in a newly created role as associate dean for senior and emeriti/ae faculty at the School of Medicine to help its faculty transition into retirement and redefine what a productive life looks like for them.

A survey of Stanford’s emeriti shows many feel isolated and alienated, and they’d like to maintain a relationship with the university as well as contribute through research, teaching, and mentorship.

“They were actually very active in continuing their scholarly work, doing volunteer activities, teaching,” Litt said. “Many have been recruited by other institutions to teach and do research after they retired from Stanford; many serve in leadership positions in international and national organizations; and many continue to publish and speak about their work.”

This informed the council’s work, which includes intellectual stimulation and community-building activities. For example, the David B. Abernethy Emeriti/ae Lecture Series: Autobiographical Reflections features distinguished senior faculty members speaking about their lives, careers, and inspirations.

As reported in a presentation to the Faculty Senate earlier this year, the council is developing a strategic plan and working with the provost’s office to make better use of emeriti’s talents.

Litt just finished a new survey of the School of Medicine’s emeriti and is in the process of analyzing data and developing programs to address findings. The School of Medicine comprises the university’s largest faculty population and may serve as a role model for what can be done in other schools, Litt said.

“I think it’s a unifying picture to recognize that each of these organizations have a role in supporting these real data-driven mandates related to support,” Litt said.