Why the baby boom generation should be itching to reinvent retirement
Marc Freedman | November 2007 issue
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.
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