Aria Bendix is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab. Her work has appeared on Bustle and The Harvard Crimson.
What percentage of your life would you guess you’d spent in grade school? What about retirement?
Although the phrase “typical American” may conjure up images of picket fences and middle-class families with a couple of dogs and a kid on the way, the term is actually quite difficult to classify. To see what I mean, take a close look at the chart below from Wait But Why, which attempts to measure the life of a typical American using data from Gallup, Forbes, the U.S. Census Bureau, the Baby Center, and the Pew Research Center. On the right side, it divides the typical American’s life into seven broad categories: the early years, elementary school, middle school, high school, college, graduate school/career, and retirement. On the left, it marks the distinct milestones that a typical American might experience throughout his or her lifetime. Each row represents a year of one’s life.
As you can see, the typical American man will live to be about 76 years old, while the typical American woman will live to be about 81. The overall chart, however, is a bit more optimistic, showing a potential life span from birth to age 90. The chart’s creator, Tim Urban, believes that “90 will not be that uncommon to live to” for young people currently in their 20s and 30s, thanks to modern medicine and advances in technology. With 52 weeks in a year, that means the American lifespan could consist of around 4,732 weeks, including the first year of one’s life. If that doesn’t seem like much time, it isn’t. Taken all together, the chart is a startling reminder of how life can be accurately described as just a series of moments.
Our Formative Years Appear Less Consequential
For most Americans, the “early years” depicted on the chart, ages 0 through about 5 and a half, are milestone-free, and comprise about 7 percent of one’s life. And while 312 weeks of elementary school and 156 weeks of middle school may sound daunting, they only account for about 7 percent and 3 percent of one’s life, respectively. High school accounts for about 4 percent. For many of us, these formative years tend to drag on—waiting to drive a car or vote for the first time can feel like an eternity. But the chart makes this phase seem far less consequential than it does in real life. By the time the typical American has finished high school, he or she has only completed around 21 percent of life’s journey.
Higher Education Isn’t Exactly Typical
Ideally, the next phase for the typical American following high school is college, which would make up about 4 percent of his or her life. It is important to note, however, that although 68.5 percent of those who graduated from high school in spring 2014 went on to enroll in some form of college, only 33.5 percent of Americans ages 25-29 hold a bachelor’s degree. That means that whether or not a “typical” American has received a higher education depends a lot on the demographic being considered—most Americans have not.
Careers (and Personal Lives) Differ For Men and Women
By age 22, the typical American has lived 1,144 weeks—only a quarter of one’s life. The next phase, however, will be the longest. At a whopping 45 percent, the typical American will spend the majority of his or her life working (in some cases, this includes graduate school), although he or she won’t be stuck at the same job the entire time. The chart shows that the typical American stays at any one job for about 4.4 years—or just under 5 percent of his or her life.
During this phase, he or she will also get married, have children, and perhaps even get divorced. As of 2013, the median age at first marriage for men was 29, while the median age for women was 26.6.
The typical American woman has her first child around the same time that she gets married, at age 26. These milestones also happen to occur during the foremost stages of her career. The average man, on the other hand, has about three extra years for his career to develop before he’s married.
For the typical American man, divorce is most likely to occur after seven years of marriage, or when he’s about 35 years old. Luckily, there’s reason to believe that nearly two-thirds of marriages will never end in divorce so long as the divorce rate continues to decline.
The Golden Years Are Longer Than You Think
Finally, at age 62, after 3,276 weeks, the typical American is ready for retirement, which comprises about 30 percent of one’s life. What’s especially striking about this visualization is how clearly it shows that retirement is typically a significant portion of one’s life. And yet many Americans don’t give much thought to this life stage. A 2015 survey from the Employee Benefits Research Institute found that six out of ten American workers had less than $25,000 saved for retirement. That’s 30 percent of our lives for which we haven’t adequately prepared.
Of course, almost no one will live this “typical” life exactly as it’s outlined in the chart above. But seeing our lives mapped out on a chart does offer a much-needed dose of perspective. Urban says he originally created the chart to address “the misconception in our head that we have an endless number of weeks.” The idea that life’s moments are finite is “important to internalize,” he argues, “because you treat those occasions like you should, like they’re precious.”
Ultimately, though, he hopes the message is uplifting. Urban even describes the chart as having an equalizing effect. “Genghis Khan, Steve Jobs, JFK, Michael Jordan,” he says, “Everything they did, they did with the same grid of weeks.”