Speakers at the Century Summit at Stanford University this year raised a recurring theme: We are all in this together.
The two-day event, co-sponsored by the Stanford Center on Longevity (SCL), the Longevity Project, and the Aspen Institute's Financial Security Program, focused on the "big ideas" needed to address life expectancies that, according to SCL founding director Laura Carstensen, have increased by 30 years in the last century.
Speaker after speaker stressed the need for people of all ages — not just seniors — to build communities to support their longer lives.
Chip Conley, founder of the Modern Elder Academy, opened the conference Monday with a keynote address in which he urged people to "focus on friendship as a practice" and to recreate retirement communities that are intergenerational and awe-inspiring.
That need is particularly strong for women who, according to Conley, make up nearly 70% of people over 65 who live alone.
The need for community came up in almost every presentation during the first day of the conference.
To fund these longer lives, we must shift from the traditional American mindset of "rugged individualism" to "interdependence," said Aurora Harris of the organization Young Invincibles that advocates for issues affecting young adults. That shift is critical to addressing existing inequities in people's ability to plan for retirement.
Ken Dychtwald of AgeWave, a think tank focused on the implications of rising longevity, reminded the audience that older people have plenty of time and ability to contribute and need opportunities to do so. Now, he says, too many retirees spend upwards of 40 hours a week watching television.
A panel on "Creating the Equitable Community" gave examples of older people connecting with younger kids and the benefits to both groups from the interactions.
Julia Gordon, representing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, described the "affordable housing crisis" in the U.S. and again asked for communal solutions, given that most older people have neither the desire nor the funds to live in nursing homes or the like.
Edward Garcia, founder and CEO of the Foundation for Social Connection, a nonprofit that seeks solutions to social isolation, pointed to well-known research showing that the experience of loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. His foundation is working with the Surgeon General's Office to foster local community connections.
Harvard professor Robert Putnam, author of the book "Bowling Alone," discussed his decades of research at looking at how we build social capital, a term recognizing that "social networks have value."
Putnam has repeatedly found that people's social connections — everything from Kiwanis club memberships to the number of times per year they go on picnics — have been declining for decades.
This phenomenon threatens not only health — Putnam says that "the chances of dying over the next year are cut in half by joining one group" — but America's democratic processes.
"Ordinary civic life," Putnam explained, "is what makes democracy work."
The day ended with a screening of "Join or Die," a film co-produced by panelist Pete Davis based on Putnam's research. Davis describes the film as "a movie about why you should join a club."
Both Putnam and Davis ended on a hopeful note, pointing to the "civic creativity" of younger generations and their increased turnout at the polls.
According to Davis, having a rich civic life, "in addition to saving America ... is totally fun."