The Centenarian Strategy: Life / Career Issues When You Will Live to 100

David Mahoney gave a wonderful commencement speech at Rutgers University in 1996. Mahoney, then chairman of the Dana Foundation, a brain research organization, made five compelling points to young people about why they should adopt a "Centenarian Strategy" for life.

His premise is that if you’re in your 20’s today, you have a pretty decent shot at living till 100 years old. Not only that, thanks to advancements in brain science, you have a decent shot at enjoying an "active fourth quarter" — that is, your 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s won’t be about wheelchairs in retirement homes and somebody reminding you what you ate for breakfast, but rather decades in which you’ll remain intellectually vibrant and independent.

What do you do with this information?

I submit that you throw out all previous notions of one career followed by a lazy retirement. That was the strategy of your grandfathers and it’s strictly wheelchair thinking. You need a new strategy for a lifetime of alertness that lasts a whole century.

The Centenarian Strategy delivers a swift kick in the head to the current idea of hitting the ground running, working your youth into frazzle, taking every better offer as it comes, making a pile as early as you can and then coasting on that momentum until your last downsizing company forces you into retirement.

He then issues five points of advice for centenarian living. I’ve included excerpts below not in blockquote because it’s a bit long. My assistant typed the whole thing from a print version – there are a couple typos…I recommend reading it all.

1. Diversify your career from the very beginning.

Stop thinking of jobs in series, one after the other; instead, think of careers in parallel. That means planning your vacation along with your avocation, and keep them as separate as possible. If you want to go into business, plan an avocation of music or art; if you are inclined toward the law or the media, diversify into education or landscaping. If you want to be a poet, think about politics on the side, and study it seriously.

Don’t confuse an avocation with recreation. Watching basketball on television, or surfing the Internet for the latest interactive game, can be a lively part of life, but it’s not creative avocation. And don’t confuse a serious avocation with a hobby; do-it-yourselfing is fund, and so are clay modeling, and gardening and fiddling with old cars. Hobbies are ways to relax and to make friends, and everybody should have some; but a real avocation is a subtext to a career, and a part of your working week to pursue with a certain dedication. Why? Not only because it gives balance to your second quarter, but because it positions you for the time that will come, in the third or fourth quarter, to switch gears. And then switch them again – you’ll have the time, and public policy will change to give you incentives to keep working or avocating.

The point is to not be singleminded about career. Be double-minded, or triple-minded; to keep a pot or two on your back burners.

2. Take advantage of your opportunity to wind up a millionaire.

Financial independence will take a lot of pressure off that fourth quarter and make it something to look forward to. The Age of Entitlement is coming to an end. The baby boomers who count only on Social Security and Medicare  will be disappointed. You in the post-boomer generation should not rely on society’s safety net and think more about your own personal nest egg.

The trick is to use the new tools the government is giving you to save, to avoid taxes in your IRAs and 40I (k) accounts, and to invest in broad index funds that are sure to grow. To the centenarian, credit-card living is out, leveraged saving is in. Use your tax leverage to make your savings grow exponentially. In this savings race, the tortoise beats the hare; by taking full advantage of the plans out there now, and more sure to come in the next decade, you need not be a rocket scientist to become a millionaire – in real terms – by your fourth quarter. Especially if you’re part of a two-income family. About that family –

3. Invest in your family dimension.

As life gets longer, young people are getting married later. Fine; that deliberation about a big choice should ultimately reverse the divorce rate. But make a commitment early in your second quarter; the smartest thing you can do in diversifying your life is to stop playing the field.

The wave of the future, in the Centenarian Strategy, is to frame your life in traditional family settings. Do your market research in singlehood, choose for the long term and then commit to marriage; have kids; a void divorce; raise your likehood of having grandchildren. Following this course, you can expect at least a couple of great-grandchildren to enjoy, to work with, and to help as you approach the century mark. If you plan properly now to protect your wallet and your intellect, you can be a family asset, not a liability, later; and your family, with all the headaches, will enrich your life.

4. Pace yourself: it’s a small world and a long life.

The centenarian thinks about success differently, with a longer view. He or she measures success in getting to personal satisfaction, which does not always mean getting to the top of the heap. Making money is important, never derogate building an estate that you and your progeny can use. But developing long –term loyalties in all the strands of your career and avocation and hobbies and recreation pays off in that satisfaction. Those loyalties also make life easier later; you can get things done across the different strands, helping someone in your avocation who has helped you in your career.

Ask yourself along the way: Whose approval is important to you? Whose is not? The centenarians do not stop to smell the flowers; they carry the flower along.

5. Plan for at least one thoroughgoing discombobulation in your life.

This can be a good shock, like meeting someone amazing, or developing a talent you never knew you had, or finding an opportunity that takes your career or avocation in a wholly new direction. Or you can find yourself, after years of success and loyal service, out on your ear in a merger or a downsizing or a hostile takeover.

It happened to me. I was running a multibillion-dollar conglomerate, doing just fine, but when I tried to take it private, somebody beat me to the punch. I wound up with a big bunch of money, which meant I got no sympathy from my friends, but I was out of a job. No airplane, no executive support system, no daily calendar full of appointments with big shots – not place to go in the morning.

Did I let it bother me? You bet I did. I plunged into the deepest blue funk imaginable. But luckily – and this was not part of any life strategy – I had an avocation to turn to. It was philanthropy, the Dana Foundation, and it had long been leading me into supporting the field of brain science. So I threw myself into that, applying what I had learned in marketing and finance to a field that needed an outsider with those credentials. And for the past ten years, I’ve gotten more sheer satisfaction out of marshaling the force of public opinion behind research into imaging, memory and conquering depression than anything I ever did as a boy wonder or a boardroom biggie.

But it would not have happened if I did not have that anchor to windward – the other, wholly unrelated activity to turn to. Success, or a resounding setback, in one career can lead to success, of another kind, in the parallel career.

14 comments on “The Centenarian Strategy: Life / Career Issues When You Will Live to 100
  • I am fortunate to have recent conversations with *current* centenarians (or close to it). One lady is the founder of Gerry Baby Products (now Evenflo). She recently started a new business and sits on boards – I was convinced she would be around for a while longer when she showed me her vision for her garden!

    Be relevant. Ad value. Love it! that is the key

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  • This is really cool.

    The speech is from 1996, twelve years ago and two years before I graduated from college – interesting that you feel the majority of the info similarly applies to Gen Xers then and Millennials now.

    I’ll probably piggy back on Water Cooler Wisdom next week. Thanks, Ben.

    Alexandra Levit
    Author, How’d You Score That Gig?
    Blogger, Water Cooler Wisdom

  • I was disappointed by Mahoney’s admonition:

    “The Centenarian Strategy also runs counter to the planning of idealistic young people who look to a life of public service, of social work or environmental action…”

    Parts of Mahoney’s speech read like a manifesto for narcissism U.S.A. style– the me-ism of Hollywood and reality TV

    His optimism for advances in neurological science is an inspiration, yet there’s something unattractive about evangelizing for centenarian strategies to the fortunate sons and daughters of rich western societies.

    Young people today would do better to think about how we in the industrialized nations can help the poorest countries feed themselves and deal with communicable diseases than to focus on a selfish quest for long life in a world that could possibly be an unpleasant place to live seventy-five years from now.

  • Thinking about how the past relates to my present has helped me take a broader time-view on life.

    I’ve recently made a habit of running through a mind exercise anytime I am in a public place. I try to visualize the interactions I am watching before me, but 50 or 150 years ago. Every time I do this (occasionally with a group of friends), the visualization opens up a much broader view on what is important in life.

    Also, I recently came across a picture of my grandfather from his wedding day. Seeing him decked out in a tux, hair slicked back, tall and confident, shattered my present conception of him. As far back as I can remember, the image of my grandfather has been a grey-haired old man with a slight hunch. The connection between this young man in the photo and my grandfather is still not clear in my mind.

  • That’s very true – what has been told about avocation and all. I also had similar thoughts on the same and wrote a small piece on the same sometime.

    But on the other side, isn’t it true that few pursuits that one follow requires much more time & effort commitment that simply won’t allow one to follow any other big or small interests seriously…?

  • Hi Ben, I’ve been reading your blog for a while, some pretty good stuff.

    Also found your book at our local library, was impressed they had two copies … I guess it did OK!

    This post gives valuable advice. I forwarded the link to my older kids to read.

    You often hear about folks not taking care of themselves physically, never realizing how long they might live, but there’s a lot of other aspects to think about, as Mahoney shows.

  • This is AWESOME! I heard about this commencement speech and your post appeared in my subsequent Google search. Some of my most interesting reading is turning out to be on your blog these days!

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