Thanks to Sue Perlgut’s documentary, 101 Ways to Retire – Or Not!, which I wrote about here last week, thoughts about the state of retirement – past and present - have been rudely intruding while I meant to be doing other things.
When Social Security was introduced in 1935, few people lived long enough to collect the benefit at age 65; most worked until they died.
In the decades since President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law, the increase in life expectancy has been dramatic. Today, a man who lives to 65 can expect, on average, another 16.3 years of life (age 81); women can expect, on average, another 19.2 years (age 84). (See interesting actuarial table here.)
Now that there are many years of life following retirement and ever since the oldest baby boomers turned 60 two years ago, mainstream media has been obsessed with the idea that boomers will “reinvent retirement.”
What most writers and reporters mean when they use this phrase is that boomers won’t sit in their rocking chairs like previous generations. They will continue to work whether for a salary or by starting new businesses. This redefinition, according to the press, will also result in what is now called “active retirement” which appears, in many reports, to involve rock climbing and bungee jumping.
I can’t prove this, but as I noted in last week’s post, I don't recall old people I knew in my youth or mid-years sitting on their bums much except for an hour to read the evening paper (when there still was one). And if bungee jumping was not on their agenda, leisure included lots of walks, swimming, biking, hiking and other physical activity.
Many still worked too or volunteered or were raising their grandchildren in single-parent households. Boomers are not as different as we are being told.
There are two mistakes, I think, in current conventional wisdom about retirement. One is that retired people of my age (currently 66) and older have not done anything productive with our time after leaving the workforce. That is just wrong.
The other mistake is more complex. It is that we (the culture, the media) draw a hard line between working life and retirement as though, in leaving the workforce, we suddenly enter another country with new rules about life and behavior.
This is no more so than it is at the early end of life with the transition from college to the workforce. By the time a student graduates from college nowadays, he or she has been working at a career since freshman year in high school - and even earlier for those who have the option of attending specialized career high schools.
Kids are forced to think about what college they will attend from at least age 13, a choice which entails decisions about a career at that young age. The importance of SAT scores since I was in school pressures them further to consider how they will earn a living years before they are ready to do so.
During summer vacations, they work at jobs that will look good on their college admissions. They take summer internships throughout college that will impress future employers. And many interview with potential employers during their final two years.
By the time they get their shiny, new degrees, it must feel like they’ve been working already for nearly a decade.
Whether we think this is a good idea or not, college graduates have been taking on more responsibility for their careers each year until the newly fledged members of workforce begin picking up weekly paychecks for what they been doing since puberty. It is not a sharp transition from student to worker. It is a continuum.
And so I think it is similar at the other end of life.
We are exhorted daily by financial institutions to build nest eggs for our old age. Retirement communities fill publications, television and our email inboxes with sales pitches touting the ease of life in their apartments, town homes and ocean view cottages.
Others remind us throughout life that if we go to the gym often enough and remove carbohydrates, protein or white sugar from our diets (depending on the current fad), we will live to be 120. When our parents stop working or become ill, we face our own future retirement while helping them cope.
In addition, employers’ 401(k) plans, stock options and banks’ various long-term savings schemes help keep the idea of retirement front and center throughout people’s working lives.
So unless you become one of the too many who are suddenly forced out of meaningful employment early by age discrimination or outsourcing, the idea of retirement, like students’ preparation for work, becomes a continuum. By the time you get there, you’ve been thinking about it since college graduation.
And probably you have made some decisions about it along the way so that life doesn’t change dramatically the morning after your last day at work. Some find part-time jobs in the early years of retirement, start a business, volunteer, study or teach.
That may slow down if you are lucky enough to live as long as those actuarial tables predict. No matter how much people try to believe they will remain as physically capable at 80 as they were at 40 – folks, it just ain’t so. That 90-year old who ran a marathon last year is the exception and as they say, shit happens. Heart attacks, strokes, cancer, Parkinson’s or just plain wearing out. And so, there will be more kinds of transitions – additions to the continuum – as we get older.
To believe that the years of retirement will all be the same is as much a mistake as thinking a six-year-old is the same as a 20-year-old. We grow, change, drop old interests, find new ones and go on living in retirement with as much variation as in every other stage of life.
We must stop thinking, culturally, that retirement is a fixed idea whether we call it “active retirement” or admit that it will have boundaries defined by baby boomers or anyone else.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Kay Dennison has a few words about what it's like when our grown children begin acting like they are our parents in Busted!!!]