Reinvent Retirement

By Marc Freedman, Ode Magazine

Picture this: A fit, handsome sixty-something couple stretches out on a sandy beach. Another silver-haired pair steers a sailboat toward the sunset. A grey-templed golfer watches his drive soar down the fairway. This life of relaxation and luxury, in which every day is one big happy holiday, has long been a powerful part of the American dream of retirement. Depicted in so many advertisements for pension plans and retirement communities, these scenes have become an indelible feature of the landscape.

But wait a minute: Who looks forward to endless retirement anymore, 30 years of R and R? Who can afford it–even with the most diligent savings plan? For reasons of money and meaning, the golden-years vision being peddled by the financial and real estate industries is already obsolete. Stretched from a justified period of relaxation after the mid-life years into a phase lasting just as long, this version of retirement has been distorted into something grotesque, something that no longer works for individuals–or for society.

In the next couple of decades, more and more people will hit the traditional retirement age and become eligible for social benefits. This trend has experts worried: Soon a quarter (or more) of the population will be spending a third (or more) of the time in subsidized leisure, squeezing investments in education, environment and economy and threatening to bankrupt society as a whole. The prospect alone has led some pundits to predict that aging boomers will be remembered as a self-absorbed, self-serving horde of over-indulgers who used their votes and their dollars to shove their own interests to the forefront, posterity be damned.

Next: Dusting off the idealism of the ’60s and ’70s

But this troubling conclusion amounts to scenario-planning through the rear-view mirror. Retirement as we’ve known it is far from an eternal verity. In fact, it is already being displaced as the central institution of the second half of life, soon to be supplanted by a new stage of life and work opening up between the end of mid-life and the eventual arrival of true old age. Indeed, four out of five boomers consistently tell researchers they expect to work well into what used to be known as the retirement years.

The emerging trend toward extended productivity needs to be supported at every turn, as individuals seek to make ends meet over longer lifespans and societies seek to balance the fiscal ship. But we can go one important step further if we hope to make the most of the great gift of longevity. Aging boomers should be encouraged not only to continue contributing, but to rethink the purpose of that work–in short, to dust off their idealism of the ’60s and ’70s, and get to work making the world a better place.

It is the perfect opportunity for the generation that set out to change the world and got lost along the way. Now, as tens of millions of boomers careen toward what were once the golden years, I believe more and more people are interested in living out a distinct and compelling vision of contribution in the second half of adult life, one built around the ideal of an “encore career” at the intersection of continued income, new meaning and significant contribution to the greater good.

It is a dream with the potential to work for individuals, for employers, for our fiscal health and for the society at large. Never before have so many individuals had so much experience–and the time to put it to good use. While financial-service companies keep telling us the freedom from work will satisfy our desires, we’re better off looking for the freedom to work–in new ways, on new terms, to new and even more important ends.

Instead of accepting the notion of a career as an arc that rises in youth, peaks in mid-life, and declines into retirement, we stand poised to chart a new trajectory–one that for many will reach its apex of meaning and impact at a juncture when others in past generations were heading for the sidelines.

Marc Freedman is the founder and CEO of Civic Ventures, and author of Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life. For more information: www.encore.org

81 comments

Bud D.
Bud D.2 years ago

Dear Hartson,

Are you sure your money was 'stolen'? Or, did you just gamble it away in the stock market?

Just curious because I hear your lament frequently, and every one that I've been able to examine has turned out to be an unfounded complaint...

Having talked to 114 people on this subject I have been able to find 9 who have a clue when it comes to retirement investing, but I'm amazed at how many have complaints about Bush destroying their retirement portfolio when they were - to a man - unable to describe even one fund in their 401k...

Every American who works for 40+ years ought to retire rich, and if they don't it's their fault, plain and simple...

Bless,

Bud

Hartson Doak
Hartson Doak5 years ago

Retire? I can not! The thieves in Wall Street and the Big Banks have stolen my retirement money. I will have to die with my boots on.

Robert O.
Robert O.5 years ago

Reinvention is a good idea for those that will be able to retire and know that for sure, but with the economy in the crapper unfortunately there will be masses of people that will no doubt have to work until the day they die and are painfully aware of that fact. :(

Doris Mason
Past Member 5 years ago

Retirement has taken on new meaning...
It is an individual's choice and there are those that never retire. We all have our own timetable....

Charles Webb
Charles Webb5 years ago

Replace congress this Nov; Vote out the old crooks. Get rid of the illegals that are draining our system, and set up the fair tax (fairtax.org). That should help.

Maria W.
Past Member 6 years ago

I watched 60 Minutes some time ago and someone predicted that with the way Americans get older and older in time more and more from the government's budget will be spent on pensions and Medicare and Medicaid.

Bee Hive Lady
Fiona Ogilvie6 years ago

Since no one can afford to retire and we are all going to live longer, we do not have any alternative. We must reinvent retirement. But the new jobs have to be creative and entertaining.

Anna Borsey
Anna Borsey6 years ago

Re "the Social Contract" I meant to add:

The wealthy and the merely well off can also afford to subscribe to private pension funds, which a lot of us cannot, but are nevertheless now exhorted to do, in order to secure a comfortable old age! This is adding insult to injury.

I too am upset, at the way society has degenerated and at the way we are all being manipulated, lied and lied and lied to again, and then briskly ordered to stop moaning, pull up our socks, make something positive and constructive out of our lives and to start taking responsibility for our own lives! Hah!

It is our money that is paying for the gilded lifestyle of the few; the politicians, especially. Nice work, if you can get it!

chris b. - The introduction of VAT on absolutely everything is the most unfair form of taxation there is. In Sweden, the much touted Utopia of U.K. liberals, the rate of VAT is a staggering 25% and has been at this level for many years now!!! And no, not all Swedes are well off. There is a growing underclass there too, just as in Britain. I lived there, in rural Närke province, for just under four years recently, and I was horrified at the decay and the lack of amenities. It is impossible to survive in rural Sweden without a car, as there is nothing there: often NO shops, no Post Office, no bank, no doctors or dentists, few schools, few bus routes. But the countryside is often quite lovely - except for the planted, endless spruce forests, which are gloomy beyond be

Dennis Hersh
Dennis Hersh6 years ago

Frank,
We are all simply "observers" of the state of humanity......NOT the "authors"......

Dennis Hersh
Dennis Hersh6 years ago

Anna,
RIGHT ON! And (in my view)......the "source" of these concerns can be traced right back to our elected officials.
40 years in the Senate and or Congress?......SIX FIGURE incomes exempted from Social Security, they vote their own raises (as recently done: $4,500.00 congress & $5,500.00 Senate....during the financial crisis they are paid to protect us from),
fully paid retirement including medical/dental packages, frequent trips around the world and in Nancy Pelosi's case "millions" of dollars per year for "private" Air Force jets (and personnel) to commute to her vinyard estate in Northern California......Further, through "systematic fragmentation" of our society we have set upon each other over topics which are as substantive as toast now using taxation as punishment of those whom we disagree or simply dont like. All the while diverting focus from these jokers who rather than respecting the national trust......ABUSE IT!
Do I sound upset?