Such a morbid way to start an article. Humans tend to shudder when they think about their life expectancy, probably because that in order to confront your expected time alive, you have to confront your own mortality. Death? Gross. Not for me please!
But, given the recent bags under my eyes and the inevitable lines in my face, I know that it is for me. Mortality can’t be avoided, but it is being pushed back, thanks in large part to science and technology. This is also something we can’t avoid. Total life expectancy has increased from less than 50 years in 1950 to almost 70 years currently. For developed countries, it’s even higher, from 65 years in 1950 to over 80 years today.
80 years, that sounds like a lot of time to fit in everything, doesn’t it? It’s actually a little calming to see the finish line, and use it as a motivator to, how should we say, “grab life by the horns.” In fact, by the time anyone reading this dies of natural causes (what are natural causes, anyway?), life expectancy will probably have already reached 100+ years for developed countries. Meaning, we can safely use 100 as a benchmark for the average life, give or take a few years.
So, life expectancy will eventually increase by an estimated 53% in as little as 100 years. If we were to go further back, we would find even more staggering numbers. But let’s not. All we need to know is this: life expectancy has increased, and continues to do so. However, our peak years of life haven’t followed suit.
When I talk about peak years, I mean peak physical years. Looking at athletes, it’s safe to say that a person’s peak years are between the ages of, let’s say, 26 to 35. This isn’t based on hard science, just a perceptive eye, but go back and look at an athlete’s best years from any era, and it will most likely fall between those bounds. This means that back in 1950, your peak years would occur almost directly in the middle of your life. A nice rise and fall in your ability to enjoy your time on Earth:
Now, however, while your peak years still take place at the same time, the long tail of life expectancy continues to increase, making the current life arc look something like this:
Which means, if the previous logic holds true, that while average longevity has increased, average quality over a person’s entire lifetime hasn't caught up.
The second graph above sheds some light on an interesting dilemma: how can we increase our quality of life so that it continues to sustain us well into our 100th year? While 100 may sound like a large number, when you consider that the universe is so vast that it measures seconds in millennia, you start to realize that a century isn’t that long of a time to be around.
Even with hip replacements and fake knees, our peak years won’t ever change. Thousands of years in the future, maybe, once we’re all grey blobs with floating brains, but today, currently, we can bank on it. We can also bank on the fact that barring any “unnatural deaths” (flying saucer accidents, exorcisms gone wrong?), we’ll live to the age of 100. So, how then do we increase the quality of life before and after our peak physical years, without being at our physical peak?
The answer is in the seasons of life. We clearly don’t have to measure the quality of our life on our physical performance alone. Instead, we should define quality as the thing(s) that give our life the most meaning at our current stage, and then enjoy that stage accordingly. By doing so, we actually create an entirely new graph, one that is much more pleasing:
With passive income, telecommuting, and other 21st century leisures, it’s unrealistic to view our life arc as one that rises and falls around a central point, like graphs 1 and 2. Life isn’t that hard, let’s be honest. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have one of 100% quality, from age 1 to 100. Because, no matter the stage or season of life you’re in, it’s important, and possible, to maximize that stage.
Are you in high school or college? Good! Be a kid and an emotionally unstable young adult. Have fun, scrape your knees, lose love, find it again, lose it again, and repeat the whole process. Learn. Try new things. Figure out what you like and what you don’t like, and why you may like or dislike it. At this stage, it’s all about self-discovery.
Are you in your 20s or 30s? Amazing! These are the years where you lay a solid foundation, based on what you learned in your previous stage. You understand the importance of personal growth. Hit the gym. read a book. Expand your network. Start a company. Fail. Figure out why you failed, and if it’s worth failing again. Then try again. Fail. Learn. Find the intersection of skills and market need. Pursue it.
How bout your 70s or 80s? Phenomenal! Speaking with my grandparents, this stage of life is one of self-reflection and bond strengthening between the ones you love. Could you run company when you’re 80? Maybe. Could you scrape your knees? It’s probably possible. Will those things likely happen? Doubtful. You’ve already accomplished all the physical and social accolades you desired in previous stages of life. You’ve raised a successful family. Cherish it. Hold your grandkids. Host family brunches. Keep exercising. Call your kids. Often.
I’m not 80, but who’s not to say that a person in their latter stages of life has any less quality than someone in their “prime,” given that they focus on the things that add quality throughout their life expectancy? In fact, it can be argued that someone in their 7th or 8th decade of life has greater life quality than someone in their 20s or 30s. What’s more rewarding than seeing the second or even third of your lineage come to fruition?
Regardless, it’s important to understand that your peak physical years don’t directly relate to your quality of life. As life expectancy increases, we’ll need to find other ways to maximize our life quality. By identifying and focusing on the goals, actions, or things that will give your life the most meaning in its current stage, and then pursing them, it ensures that you’ll have a high quality of life, regardless of overall life expectancy.