What Would Retirement Look Like if You Lived Forever?

Last Updated Feb 15, 2011 6:11 PM EST

Is humanity on the verge of discovering the secret to immortality? That's the notion being suggested by Time magazine's cover article this week titled 2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal. According to scientists quoted in the article, the near future could include gene therapy that reverses aging, and the opportunity to download your brain to a computer far more powerful than we can imagine today. If you and I could only live until that time, we could become like vintage cars -- constantly being repaired and continually running down the road!

The article certainly provides some good mind candy, but it also got me thinking about insights we can apply today without waiting for this science fiction to become reality.

What would "retirement" look like if you lived forever? For one thing, it would certainly take a substantial 401k balance to be able to afford to live forever. And your great-great-great-great-grandchildren may not want to continue supporting your Social Security benefits with their FICA taxes, especially if they have to also support their parents, their grandparents, and so on. And would Medicare cover the expensive gene therapy you're going to need to stay young?

It's pretty obvious that you'd need to continue working to support yourself -- and to pay for the constant repairs to your vintage body. Just ask any vintage car owner about the high costs of keeping the car running; it's a rich person's hobby.

You probably wouldn't want to continue working at your same job forever, however, because that would get pretty boring. And that's if your current job was even around -- most jobs today didn't exist 20 or 30 years ago, let alone 100 years ago. So you'd need to continually change jobs and update your skills. You'd probably have to make significant career changes every 10, 20, or 30 years, not only to keep life interesting, but also just to stay employed as the needs of our society evolve.

Hmm...continue working, periodically renew your skills and career, pay constant attention to your physical body to keep it running ...these sound like familiar themes if you've been reading my posts. We don't need to wait to become immortal: We should be doing these things today!

People who lived before the 20th century had average lifespans of 50 years or so; they would almost consider us "immortal" with current lifespans that can reach age 80, 90, 100, or more. And I'd guess they would easily agree to working longer and renewing themselves, if that was the tradeoff for getting those extra years of life.

Last weekend, my wife and I enjoyed a visit with our friend Jane, who is the poster-child for this future life. She's turning 70 and is still going strong at a job she loves. She sees herself continuing in this job for at least another four or five years, and after then she will continue writing and conducting workshops. Looking back at her career, she's reinvented herself several times without skipping a beat. She just refinanced her house so it can be paid off when she's 83 -- with many more years of good life to go. She exercises regularly and eats well. She's vibrant, healthy, and looks about 55. She's not immortal, but she sure comes pretty darn close!

As part of your retirement planning, take a little time to imagine that you'd live forever. What would you do differently? The same? Talk it over with your spouse, family, and friends. Not only will it be a fun discussion, it will probably give you some powerful insights into how you can make the best of your rest-of-life.

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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