The Potential For Elder-Friendly Skies
The Words We Use for Elders

Redefining Retirement For Real – As a Continuum

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!!!]


I don't know, Ronni. I think there ARE differences. One of my good friends is a major retirement community developer, and he has been in business for thirty years after working for Del Webb. He says things have really changed in what people expect from retirement communities. He didn't have to put in gyms, computer classes, and spas in the early ones; they had golf courses and shuffleboard. Things change. Also more of his people do work after the age they can enter his communities, so the concept of buying cheap land on the outskirts of town doesn't fly anymore; his people have to commute to that town.

I really love this post. It encourages the kind of analysis we need to understand our links with our elder ancestors and how the details of our lives will often look different because of cultural and social changes and opportunities. Thank you.

This post will also encourage us to look at what our individual family members did in retirement in those long past years and how this affects us today.

Tho one grandmother died in 1928 and another grandfather in the 1953, the two remaining grandparents kept on working and earning money almost until they died. Slowed by emphysema, my college educated grandmother lived independantly on 78 dollars a month and drew portraits to augment her meager income. Grandfather made money in the stock market while he played golf, was treasurer of his church, and kept on learning launguages until his death at 99.

Despite their early brilliance, my parents faded into retirement pushed not only by their assorted diseases but also by their alcoholism. I refuse to fade into anything, and I have a retirement account, SS, and still work tho not in the field for which I trained or got my degree in. We have to keep learning, keep growing, keep giving back, and keep on moving one way or another or we too will stagnate. That's what I have learned in retirement. Nothing fixed at all, indeed.

Life has many "passports" doesn't it? Always a work-in-progress. And every person's destination is altogether different from another's.

I am weary of being harangued by financial soothsayers who predict doom and gloom for those of us who have failed to sock away a couple of million.

Nope, we won't have two million; hell, we'll be fortunate to have two hundred. However, that doesn't mean we can't attempt some definition of "second life" that will be satisfying.

Of course we want the "good life", healthy lives full of adventure, who doesn't? And yes, that picture book life takes money, lots of it - according to late night TV ads for investment programs (along with several life-enhancement drugs, it seems). But, the fantasy retirement life just won't be a reality for most of us.

Good health is a very big part of that equation, one that we have little control over. Social Security benefits may or may not be in our future, either. Big question marks that portend equally large effects on my future.

But, as you so wisely pointed out - shit happens, and sometimes things just don't fall into place as we planned. Without good health, my husband and I don't have an alternate route for our older years. That is my biggest fear; with good health we can work and ensure some income. Otherwise, our choices are grim.

I found this T.S. Eliot visionary quote while googling around:

The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

May we all have that chance to explore.

I'm with Pattie! The past 10 years has made a huge difference in how my retirement is going to be and my options are limited and dependent on my health. The trick is figuring out where to look to see what I can do. The information seems to be a deep, dark secret.

I like the thoughts raised in this posting Ronni!

If retirement is defined by "not working", don't we need to define "work"? More and more, work today is less with a corporate environment and more with a self employment effort. More and more, work is becoming non-traditional.

So what is "traditional work"? What is "traditional retirement"?

Isn't some "work" really "play" (for money)?

Francine--You are surely addressing a segment of the population peopled by those with, what to anyone in my family would have been, an enormous amount of money.
Steve--"Traditional" is what I think is normal; thus, when I read/hear "traditional" from someone else, I nearly always think that they don't know what they are talking about!

In my family, when one retired, he/she moved from the farm to the city. My matrilineal great-grandparents did just that, and Grpa immediately found a paying job to keep him busy. Grma kept busy taking care of Grpa (he of the one arm), the house, and her mother (she who was bed-fast).

My own parents actually did retire--on Dad's union pension and social security. Unfortunately, that was before the law required that the worker's spouse be given the option of continuing a portion of the pension after the worker's death. Thus, Mom got by on the survivor's portion of Dad's social security (it being larger than her own would have been), and zero from the union retirement.

For my own retirement, I chose to spend the first year catching up on my reading--frequenting my public library to the tune of more than 100 books in nine months. Then came Katrina. I now have an unpaid career, volunteering with the Red Cross. It is every bit as enjoyable as my 30-year career as an engineer proved to be.

Cop Car brought up an important point for all who are at a time in their lives when financial plans are being made and if there is a pension to be considered.

He mentioned that his parents did not have the opportunity to opt for smaller payments from his Union's
Health and Welfare Plan while his Father was still living,in order to allow his widow(Cop Car's Mom) to continue receiving a portion of her late husband's pension after his death.

This seems to be a fairly common mistake that Union Administrators must address and advise their members about.

You have two choices when you retire with Union benefits.

One: Take the largest pension available and your wife gets nothing when you die.

Two: Opt for a smaller pension while you are living and when you die your wife is entitled to a portion of your pension until her death.

Think carefully when you are given this option at the time of your retirement. It's Important.

I will be retiring within the year. My husband retired two years ago and is a very active person and some days struggles to keep busy as demand for his services are slowing down.But, he is the type who will always find something to do. I think the scary scenarios on low nest eggs are over done. Maybe people will not be able to afford that trip to Venice or the trip to the other side of the country to visit the kids or to keep their big house, but we have made it to our 60s, we adapt, we adjust, we are resilient. And as babyboomers we will probably continue to reinvent the path to growing old.

Just want to say -- the husband of one of my dear friends died this week. He had been "retired" for about 5 years, though active in the community. She left a job she held for many years and hated before she was 65 about a year ago so that they could spend some "retirement" time together. He didn't last long, but she is very glad that she had the chance to spend time with the person who meant the most to her.

The lesson I have drawn from watching this: if you have the economic option, and you have something better to do, don't hang on to some job because it has become your identity. You can do better.

A lot of people have retired from a job and started another several times before they are 65.
For them it is just another change in direction.

For others who have worked at the same job for 40 years, retiring might be the first time they've faced change.

My grandparents retired from long-held jobs, and then worked in their gardens and orchards, selling produce to eat and make ends meet. My dad was an optometrist, then a real estate developer, then a writer and died as a salesman at age 80. I was a stay at home mom until I turned 55, and then became and editor, writer and research assistant.

Commercials make retirement sound like it should be a 30 year vacation. The isn't the reality I will be living with. Only really rich, and really shallow people can live the high life for that long, in that style, without wanting to contribute somehow. The rest of us will be working at one thing or another as long as we're able to, just like former generations.

Golfing is work to a professional golfer, travel is work to a traveling salesman, and sewing is to a seamstress. They might choose different ways to relax, while I might choose their work as my hobby. Retirement is all in the definition.

Yes! I'm nearly 75, and technically retired, but I keep just as busy as I ever was--in a good way. Elder life is about purposeful living, not about idle retirement. That's what I think it always has been about.


I think the "continuum" concept you make about every stage of our lives is exactly to the point. Having abrupt forced changes foisted on us because we have reached a certain age is ridiculous. But your two points are quite well-taken.

When I was young, I don't recall older people sitting around either unless they had health problems so serious they couldn't do anything else.

I think every generation redefines the retirement years based on their health status and the longevity patterns in existence at that time.

So many valid points have been made that I will print this BLOG to re-read and ponder on. Quite often, as in all our lives, circumstances beyond our control force us into the kind of retirement that we must live. Physically, alas, my body is in a slow decline. But I keep on doing everything I am able to do and don't look back. Giving up is the worst thing that anyone can do and whatever kind of retirement you live you must engage in it fully.

Darlene's comment reminded me of my favorite mantra: "Doing the best I can with what I've got left." Let's face it, getting older is one of the most creative parts of our lives for those of us who don't want to just wither away.

I think that the idea of a continuum accurately describes retirement for my professional and social circles. While I have friends with retirement incomes ranging from 5,000 to 14,000 a month who are busy planning cruises and enjoying a life of leisure, I also know people - myself included - who will work well into their 70's or 80's for pleasure or out of economic necessity.
Retirement is likely to be much more complex for pre-Boomers and Boomers. But then, their lives have always been complex.
I also think that our memories of our parents' and grandparents' retirement may be a bit hazy. Many of them continued - and are continuing - to work and to volunteer late in life. My own grandmother, when she was past 80, took a job caring for an old lady!

I would like to hear more about retired single women without spouse, children or grandchildren who are elder and retired from a career and on disability.

I support the contiuum concept and would love to see the day when we retire retirement. Send me an email and I'll send a Word file with over 50 alternatives to the "R" word. The language we use reflects our beliefs and drives our behavior. How would you feel if you called yourself an ageless adventurer instead of a (ugh) retiree?

IMHO, the phrase "re-invent retirement" applies to both retired and working elders; and it applies to perceptions as well as actions. The younger generations see how we 50+ elders act, talk, communicate, blog, exercise, and just plain live life. To me, it's as much about perceptions as real actions both in retirement and leading into retirement. I work in a youth-focused profession... advertising and website development. I use my elder status to question things the younger workers are afraid to ask, or don't have the perspective / context to question something. I also try to be one of the first to bring new ideas or ideas about using new technology in different ways. When AARP became one of my agency's clients, the 20- and 30-somethings were at a loss and aggressively sought out their elder coworkers. Our experience, actions, and perspectives (and humor) define us and how others see us... both in retirement and leading into retirement. I don't want a narrow or restrictive description of redefining only retirement. We redefine so much more than that... long before retirement!

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