the aspiration curve from youth to old age

This is a interesting pair of graphs produced by an economist named Hannes Schwandt. Graph A shows people’s reported life satisfaction at each age (the square dots) and their expectations for how satisfied they will be five years later (open dots). Most young people expect to see dramatic improvements in the near future, whereas older people expect to be worse off after five years. But their actual (self-reported) satisfaction does not climb and then fall off in old age. Quite the contrary: it falls and then rises. Graph B shows the error in their predictions: they are substantially too optimistic until about age 50, and then too pessimistic from age 60+ (although life takes so many directions in the last decades that a few people err on the side of excessive optimism).

Schwandt thinks that the U-shaped curve in our subjective life-satisfaction results from errors in expectations. Although people of all ages hold diverse views, many young adults feel that they are not yet getting what they want from life (money, security, positive impact, love, sex, or whatever). Many expect to get all this in five years. In middle age, the same people are disappointed not to have seen their expectations met and rate themselves dissatisfied. This is the notorious Midlife Crisis. They also expect life to get worse–it won’t offer important new satisfactions or successes, but their health will decline as their years  run out. Instead, life does offer new rewards in the later decades, and so people are pleasantly surprised. Mean self-reported satisfaction is the same at age 70 as it was at age 30 (and much higher than it was at 50).

For those of us who work primarily on issues of youth, this is a challenging theory. It suggests that young people’s expectations are often so high as to cause distress later. This pattern certainly does not affect everyone. We found that before teenagers enter YouthBuild, just 30% expect even to live to old age. YouthBuild raises their hopes to the point that 90% of its graduates expect to live past 65. That is clearly a success. The U-curve may be a “first world problem,” affecting people whose teenage years have gone reasonably well. It is still a problem, however, and I have never seen an effort to address it. Maybe encourage young adults to read Stoic or classical Indian philosophy?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.