Anticipating the future is confusing. It’s unknown, for one thing. And we don’t have any tools for measuring. What I can tell from reader mail is that we put a steep discount on the future. If it ain’t soon, it ain’t. You would be amazed at the number of 55-year-old people who casually assume they will be dead and buried by 70.
That won’t happen, at least not for the majority of Americans. A huge 84.5 percent of those who reach 55 will still be around at 70. And 44.8 percent will hang in to reach 85, or beyond. That’s what the survivorship tables from the National Center for Health Statistics tell us.
Financial planners are the opposite. They obsess about the long term. They want to be sure we can afford plenty of food and tequila for that much-awaited 98th birthday party. Think of them as repressed party animals, living vicariously through the sustained bacchanals of our longevity. They want us to be 95 percent sure we won’t run out of money by the time 95 percent of us will be dead.
So I spend a lot of time puzzling about this, trying to figure out what the right balance is.
- In one exercise, I figured that if you discount future years by the probability of not being alive, the 17 years from 65 to 82 were “worth” four times as much as the remaining 17 years from 83 to 100.
- In another, I examined the pool of life-years a group of 100,000 people expect to have and proposed that we view it as a Cup of Life so we’d have some idea when we had come close to the bottom of the cup. By the time you reach age 85, it turns out, you’ve down to the last drops, having drunk 96 percent of the cup. Some may want to lick the bottom of the cup, but no one will accuse us of being wasteful if we leave those drops behind.
Both exercises suggest that eating dessert first is a good strategy for getting the most out of life. The only caution: don’t be so busy eating desserts that you can’t afford a later lifetime of soup and salad entrees.
Now let’s try another exercise. Let’s consider the growth of physical and mental disabilities. These don’t kill us, but they have a “hedonic impact.” They reduce our capacity to experience life. They may even dim our capacity for the amazing, raw pleasure of just being alive. If we could build a hedonic clock, some minutes would be shorter and others would be longer.
Here, derived from data in a 2012 study by the Census Bureau, is what a group of 65 year olds can expect by age 80:
- 38 percent will be dead;
- 34 percent will have severe disability;
- 9 percent will have some disability; and
- 18 percent will have no disability. (note: figures don’t add to 100 due to rounding)
These figures, by the way, are for the non-institutional population, the 95 percent of people who are still living on their own. Five percent of the population age 65 and over is living in assisted living facilities or nursing homes. That's about 2 million people. So it’s safe to say that a more complete picture would be a bit darker. You should also know that nearly half of that 2 million institutional population is age 85 or older.
There are three suggestions from this hedonic read-out:
First, if you daydream about doing a lot of things, but find they don’t get done, it’s time to get serious. Make that bucket list— the things you want to do, the places you want to go, the experiences you want to have. Start making concrete plans and do it. Don’t lose small items on the list because you’re obsessing on the big items. The hedonic clock tells us time is of the essence. Do it now, or do it soon. That bucket list should be a source of memories before you hit 80.
Second, divide your spending into core expenses (shelter, transportation, food, clothing, etc.) and discretionary spending (vacations, travel and hobbies). Then find a way to front-load the discretionary spending. Creating a bucket list and funding it can do this.
Third, whatever your age, prepare to adapt. It makes the good things better and unravels the knots and kinks in the tough stuff.