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4 Encore Lessons from Betty White

Joe Coughlin

What Might Living 100 Years Be Like? Betty White Gives Us A Few Clues On Life, Work & Retirement

Betty White's career leaves us with possible insights about our future selves in life, work & retirement. Source: Wikimedia, Betty White at 1988 Academy Awards
Betty White's career leaves us with possible insights about our future selves in life, work & retirement. Source: Wikimedia, Betty White at 1988 Academy Awards

Joseph F. Coughlin, Founder, MIT AgeLab

Translating global demographic, social & technology insights into business strategy

Betty White died this past week. Given her long life, only a few weeks until her 100th birthday, all of us knew her. Well, at least we knew her professionally. In my recent Forbes article (read it here), I glean four lessons Betty White’s century of life might provide to Gen Z’ers, Millennials, and frankly, to all of us.

Career Is A Series Of Gigs

Many of us know Betty White from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” or the now iconic “Golden Girls.” While acting is the original gig profession, White showed us that our careers will be many things, not one occupation for decades. She started on stage, did radio stints, and garnered over 120 film credits from television, movies, to even the voice of some of our favorite characters in animations such as “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Toy Story IV.”

As children we were asked, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ As parents we ask our children, ‘what do they want to be when they grow up?’ Too often, as parents (and teachers), we often fill in the blank before the kid can respond. There is often a tone of singularity in the question – you are going to be one thing. In a world where work life may be more than the number years that many people hoped to live only a century ago, we must change our question to be, ‘how many things will you be when you grow up?’ As an aside, growing up was never an option for me, it takes the fun out of being an adult.

Want To Work? Want To Remain Relevant?  Adapt

Imagine a work life that spans 70-plus years. Think of all the changes Betty White experienced in her craft. She jumped into television just as television became ‘a thing.’  

For those of you my age, we have seen remarkable changes in processes, organizational norms, even the very role of the corporation change from a singular focus on shareholder value to stakeholder value. Technology is the most obvious driver of change. How many of you have somewhere in your brain the words ‘selectric typewriter,’ or ‘dot matrix printer?’

While Gen Z and many Millennials are dubbed digital natives, keep in mind they are digital natives of today’s technology, not tomorrow’s. They won’t be natives for long. Given the sheer velocity of technological change, the youngest workers today may age faster than any previous generation. Like Betty White, all of us must learn how to constantly adapt. 

Retirement Years Are More Than A Beachwalk

At 88 years old Betty White was invited to host “Saturday Night Live.” Even after that she did more than a few gigs. As noted in my book The Longevity Economy, old age is made up. So is retirement. Retirement was made for laborers who did physical work. Unless driving a keyboard is now considered ‘physical work’ few of us have a reason to retire the classic way. That does not mean a constant 40, 50, 60-plus hour-a-week grind at the same job or with the same employer, but it does mean preparing to do more than investing nearly as many years one worked into a life of retirement brochure living.

Life Is Too Long Not To Smile

White was America’s Golden Girl. I have to believe that one of the reasons she earned that status was how her characters made us feel. They made us smile. Moreover, she described herself as a “cockeyed optimist.” Betty White, and studies on healthy longevity, have shown that being positive, having a sense of humor, being optimistic, correlates with living longer, better. A common expression used to justify filtering out negativity is ‘life is too short for….’ Well, that may have to be amended. Life is getting longer, not for everyone, but for many. And a longer life is too long not to smile or cause someone else to smile. 


Please share my #longevityeconomy newsletter and invite your friends and colleagues to follow me here on LinkedIn. Happy 2022! May the new year bring you and yours health and happiness.