Archive for ◊ October, 2008 ◊

• Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

It seems as if everyone writing about retirement wants to replace the word retirement because it has negative connotations of growing old, of not being relevant and this is unacceptable to baby boomers approaching 60. So, we have people urging us to “retire retirement”, “revolutionize retirement”, “re-write retirement”. Let’s call it something else like: “The New Retirement”, “Re-engagement”, “The Third Age”, “The Second Half of Life”, the “Unretirement“, the “On Purpose Retirement” and “Seniority-The New Retirement”.

A recent study of current retirees by Dr. Ken Dychthvald, author of “Age Power: How the 21st Century Will Be Ruled by the New Old” identifies 4 main types of retirees. While the study was sponsored by AIG SunAmerica, obviously to encourage financial planning and investment, the study makes the point that people must prepare for retirement psychologically as well as financially.

The 4 categories identified, based on many interviews with people 55 and older were:

The Ageless Explorers representing 27% of those surveyed are the leaders in creating a new definition of retirement. They see themselves in an exciting new phase of life, have the highest level of education, household income and net worth. These are the people you read about who are climbing Mt. Everest, jumping out of planes, etc.

The Comfortably Contents (19%) aim to live the traditional lifestyle of leisure. They are not interested in working or contributing to society. They have saved sufficiently to spend their time on travel or recreational activities.

The Live for Todays (22%) may be interested in personal growth and reinvention, but since they were always focused on the present and didn’t do much retirement planning or saving, they have a great deal of anxiety about their finances and are likely to continue working during retirement (can you call it retirement then?)

The Sick and Tireds, the largest group (32%) are in the worst circumstances, they are less educated, have fewer financial resources and low expectations for the future. They are more likely to have been forced into retirement because of poor health, are less likely to travel, participate in community events, or tap into their potential.

Since baby boomers are known for spending more than for saving, there is a real question of whether there can be a retirement in the traditional sense for many of them. The media, which focuses on the stories of the Ageless Explorers as defining the concept of retirement because they are certainly more inspiring, may be feeding into unrealistic expectations of many of those approaching retirement.

In my career as a financial advisor, I saw many young people who had unrealistic expectations of retiring at 40 or 50 with a comfortable lifestyle, but who had not yet saved anything. And if you showed them the projections which showed that they would need to save a large part of their income for many years, they were totally floored, and would tell you they couldn’t possibly save that much. Very typical, was one young couple in their 40’s who wanted to retire by 55, but were not able to save what they needed to save for their retirement and their children’s education, despite earning almost $300,000/year and were spending $3,000/month on credit card payments but couldn’t tell you what they were spending that on.

Perhaps it is time for people to let go of the words and images that box us into unrealistic expectations of what “retirement” should be. Instead, perhaps it’s time to view this as just another stage in life with a different set of challenges for survival and satisfaction – just life, of which work may or may not be a part. Those of us who work in retirement coaching do not have any judgement about what this stage of life should look like, but work with clients to help them define for themselves what they want for themselves given whatever realities they have to work with.

Recently, I was talking with a friend about my life in which I always seemed to be a little earlier than the crowd in what I was doing with my life. In 1957, I was committed to having a career when most young women wanted to get married and have children; when I married and had my son while I was in my Junior year of college, I had to switch to evening classes at another university when the women’s college I attended did not yet have back to school programs for women. I got 3 advanced degrees after my son was born and before I was 40, working full-time – long before the baby boomer generation of working mothers. I was the first woman loan officer in every commercial bank I worked for and began a new career as a financial advisor when I was 55 and my fellow advisors were 30 years younger. In other words, I believe we can and should define our own lives and not be bound by the definitions of others. My friend suggested that what we were talking about was “busting out of the box” living, going against the norm. For some of us, we’ve been doing it all our lives. For others, they may need to learn how. We talked about the “unbox” theory of retirement, and then asked “what box?”. In fact, the boxes we live in exist only in our minds and are of our own construction.

In my early 40’s I read Richard Bolles‘ book on life-planning called “The Three Boxes of Life and How to Get Out of Them” in which he described how we compartmentalize life into three stages: the education phase, the work or productivity stage and the leisure or retirement stage, but that in order to have a balanced work/life we needed to make room for all three at one time. This stage of life, whatever you want to call it and whenever it begins, can be the time we’ve been waiting for, with the freedom to combine all three: learning, productivity and leisure, until we encounter the next stage: real old age with its new challenges.

• Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

In 1971, 37 years ago, I was founding Executive Director of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program of Greater Hartford, Conn. The goal was to recruit retiring persons into volunteer service with various non-profits. Meeting with individuals I saw the differences in how people viewed retirement: many viewed it with eager anticipation, others with dread. Many times I met men, particularly, who were literally wasting away because of the loss of work and they simply couldn’t see volunteer activities as an adequate replacement for the validation that work had given them. In some cases, the loss was so great, they committed suicide, although this wasn’t much discussed. As a young woman, it was a revelation that the loss of work could be so devastating. Women seemed to fare better because, if working, they usually had multiple roles and had something left when work was gone.

With the sponsorship of AARP, I delivered workshops in corporations to encourage retiring workers to become volunteers, stressing not only what it would do for the community, but what it would do for their physical and mental health. Frankly, neither I nor others, particularly in the field of Aging, focused on the opportunities for new work in retirement. I suppose the thinking at the time was that people wouldn’t live long enough to bother with that. Also most of the corporate retirees I met were retiring with pensions and money didn’t seem to be as much of an issue as it is now. Perhaps I was uninformed and naive, after all, I was only 32!

A lot has changed since then. We now know most of us will live a lot longer than anticipated and once again I find myself about and working with people to define what will be done in those later years.

Given a society in which life expectancy has increased to 77 for men and longer for women, and in which by 2030, 25% of all Americans will be over 65, the doomsayers predict bankruptcy for Social Security and Medicare, national deficits and intergenerational conflict. However, Marc Friedman in his best-selling book “Encore, Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life” states that these dire scenarios contain a basic fallacy: “they take retirement as we’ve known it as a given and a constant. A relatively recent social institution is treated as an eternal verity and all planning revolves around it. The predictions join together the new numbers of boomers moving through their sixties and beyond with the old lifestyle based on a leisure-driven retirement.” Friedman in a chapter titled “Inventing the Golden Years” traces the development of the concept of retirement as funded leisure beginning with the post WWII labor movement which created the corporate pension, which along with Social Security would provide financial safety for most Americans. This combination of financial incentives and the concept of retirement as the “fun-filled payoff” for years of hard work resulted in a decline from 1950, when nearly half of men over 65 remained in the workforce to 2000 when less than 18% were still working. A relatively new concept in our country’s history, had become a promised “right, a social institution, a new version of the American Dream”, but “without new meanings to fill it”.

The Dream was nurtured by the developers of the large-scale retirement communities for fun in the sun, beginning with Del Webb’s Sun City in Arizona, who literally invented the defining phrase of the 60’s and 70’s: “The Golden Years”. With advertising by developers and financial institutions encouraging the investments to pay for this lifestyle, a new dream emerged: that of “early retirement”. Social historians have remarked on the incredible busyness of those retirement communities with their leisure activities, exercise and volunteer activities; but Friedman maintains that “the new focus on activity was not able to close the gulf in meaning and roles between the end of work and the end of life, to fill the void produced by the absence of work…This lifestyle concept of “The Golden Years” was never designed to support a period as long as mid-life (30 years) in duration; it was supposed to be a pleasant way for individuals, who had worked in much more demanding jobs than today’s 50 and 60 year old somethings have worked to get a well-deserved rest before disability sets in”.

As a Financial Advisor over the last 14 years, I met many young people who, I felt, had unrealistic notions of retiring in their 40’s, perhaps because they were working hard, but more often because they had a “get rich quick” mentality fostered by the media, an attitude that has gotten many individuals and our society into trouble recently. It was almost as if they viewed work as a negative to be gotten rid of as soon as possible in order to enjoy leisure. In any case, when they found out what kind of saving and investment it would take to achieve that goal, they were disbelieving. In fact, there are very few Americans today who have been able to save enough to fund 30 years of retirement despite the exhortations of the financial institutions. A recent survey found that 50% of Americans nearing retirement had less than $50,000 saved and most will not be getting pensions. Whether they want to or have to, 4 out of 5 boomers consistently tell researchers that they expect to work well into what used to be known as retirement years. And this was all before the 2008 financial collapse which wiped out 2 trillion dollars from retirement accounts and into which many had stopped contributing because of economic pressures and fear. It was already difficult for people to save when the average income of American households in 2007 was $50,000 and with two people working.

It is Freedman’s contention that, if this is the case, then it is in our individual and national interest to create work that matters, that utilizes the skills of the “largest, healthiest, longest-lived, and best-educated generation in American history”. But there are few models for this kind of work. In many cases, the only model is substituting “the Wal-Mart years for the Golden Years”. Given the current economic decline with mass layoffs, those planning to work in retirement should not just look for a job, but in many cases will need to create “work that matters” for themselves; they will need to be social pioneers in a way. Friedman cites many examples in his book of people who have done just that. A recent AARP survey, entitled the New Face of Work, asked leading-edge boomers what kind of work they wanted. Fully half said they were interested in taking jobs to help improve the quality of life in their communities. As a long-time social activist myself, I have been interest in developing a university program focused on Civic Engagement as a means of encouraging young people to consider careers fostering social change rather than the pursuit of money. Perhaps our retiring boomers are the more likely leading edge for social change as they pursue encore careers, uncharted territory where they are “not celebrating their freedom from work, but rather freedom to work, in ways that hold the promise of personal fulfillment, economic benefit and social renewal”. Another emerging force in developing the encore concept will be the large number of women retiring who have spent most of their lives working, not a major factor when the “Golden Years” concept was invented. Women, historically, have had more interest in issues affecting families, education, children, health and the aged. Theirs is a strength of numbers and energy which has great promise for encore careers affecting social change that can’t even be imagined.

William Safire, a famous columnist who retired from the New York Times at 75, when asked why he retired when he could have kept on, said he wasn’t retiring but believed in trying new things and believed that “when you’re through changing, you’re through. Retraining and fresh stimulation are what all of us should require in ‘the last of life, for which the first was made'”. However, he advised laying the groundwork for future career activities in the midst of current careers in order to create the opportunity for “an exhilerating second wind”. His final advice: Never retire. He himself left the Times to take a full-time job leading the nonprofit Dana Foundation, which focuses on brain research, immunology and public health education.

After a number of years working with people planning for retirement, I have seen that most people really have given little thought to what they will do with themselves after retirement. Yes, there are those who say they will spend their days fishing or reading or painting or sewing or travel. But, personally, I don’t see that having a lasting attraction. I have no judgement about what people should do. I myself have had five careers, becoming a financial advisor at 55, which required my becoming licensed for securities and insurance. Retraining was hard, but I enjoy learning new things. In coaching, I enjoy working with people who want new opportunities for learning and growth in “the next thing”.

Friedman recognizes that a respite from work whether planned or unplanned because of layoffs and downsizing might be desirable, a gap year, so to speak, for rest, refreshment, travel, like a sabbatical, before moving on to the next phase of engagement. Perhaps retirement planning should be re-named “Planning for a Fresh Map of Life”. And should be recognized as strategic life planning to be done in one’s 50’s. Beyond individual efforts to create the encore career which provides meaning and income, Friedman suggests that we need a new social compact which “offers the opportunity to get work right” by clearing away obstacles that make continued work difficult, provide opportunities and incentives to use skills and experience in new ways, providing a break to catch your breath and re-tool for what’s next and to make work flexible to adapt to life’s realities, because it is in society’s interest to do so. It would be like a GI bill to reintegrate retiring Americans into new roles.

A 2004 report by the Progressive Policy Institute, noting that 79% of Americans supported programs like the Peace Corps, Americorps, and Learn and Serve America programs, proposed a national policy blueprint for a Boomer Corps as a way of making the transition from full-time career to an active retirement that mixes work, leisure and service (i.e. a balanced lifestyle). In return for service in areas of care for the elderly, educational achievement for the young and other activities of civic engagement, participants would receive a stipend (not large; it presumes other sources of retirement income), vouchers to pay for Medicare and long-term care insurance or other health-related expenses. This would be a necessary expansion of the concept of the old Retired Senior Volunteer Program.

In the meantime, individuals will need to rely on themselves or career and life counselling to manage the transition to new careers in retirement whether for profit or service.

• Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

While I want to focus on the opportunities for a vital life after retirement, there are those who feel that it’s just as important to tell the other side of the story: that aging is a time of decline and loss, that our society views aging with revulsion, that 78 million baby boomers moving into their sixties will break the Social Security and Medicare banks, that 40% of those boomers will find themselves having to take care of their parents while still supporting their own children and that the growth of the over 85 segment of the population will create huge challenges becaes of the cost of caregiving.

Dr. Lillian Rubin (a psychologist who is 82 herself) in her book “60 On Up, the Truth About Aging in America” states that, while it’s great to hear about the exploits of 80 and 90 year old achievers, it’s the rare person who has the will or the financial resources to think about climbing mountains and jumping from planes – the stories that claim media attention. For most of us facing a very long age, the question is “Now What?…What will sustain us – emotionally, economically, physically, and spiritually?”

She discusses the challenge of finding meaning in a society where dignity and respect are associated with work and productivity, how to have relevance in a socity that idolizes youth. She quotes a retireing businessman saying “I think I’ve acquired some wisdom over the years, but there doesn’t seem to be much demand for it.” Particularly poignant is her description of retirment communities where the newly retired go to enjoy themselves, where frenetic busyness “begins to pale into more of the same and the sense that there must be more to life than this begins to take hold”. As a South Florida resident, I have been to social events at various “active adult” communities and what I see are the once active adults who are now on walkers and in wheelchairs, while the communities scramble to bring in the younger retiree so as not to lose the aura of being a lively place.

One of the biggest losses as one ages, along with the loss of spouse and family members, is the loss of friends, particularly the loss of friends who share our history, who knew us “when”. Even if you’ve had friends across generational lines, as you age these friendships fall away, because the younger people are too busy with their lives. I have had friendships with people much older than myself and have felt the difficulty of holding on to “a connection that no longer has the same vitality”. You watch the person lose their zest for life, their energy. It’s a paradox: we want to still have a place in the world and yet we may withdraw into a quieter, more contemplative, and lonely place as we tire.

Dr. Rubin also debunks the notion that there will be a major transfer of wealth to the baby boomer generation from their parents. This theory is based on the assumption that financial assets will increase in value over time, which, with the recent collapse of our financial markets, looks less realistic. Also, if the parents live to 90 or more, they will need much of that money to sustain themselves. Rather than inheriting much, baby boomers may find themselves having to support aging parents. No matter how loving the relationship, there are bound to be feelings about the money being drained away by eldercare. Since recent statistics show that half of households nearing retirment have less than $55,000 in savings, it will be quite a challenge for many to financially survive their own retirements, much less provide for their parents too. Along with the financial issues, are the emotional conflicts between adult children and their aging parents as attempts to help are viewed as intrusions by the parents. Presently, I am watching this struggle as my son attempts to provide care for his father (my former husband) who almost died before he was placed in a rehab facility and is now angry with his son about the loss of autonomy, at the same time wanting his son to give up his life plans to take care of him because he doesn’t want to spend money on an assisted living facility.

Dr. Rubin makes an effective case that, while our parents might have stumbled into a lengthy old age without a clue, our generation can choose to face facts, the hard realities described above, and prepare better, while working to change economic and social policies to deal with these issues. Based on my previous career as a financial advisor, I know that there are many strategies available to cope with many of the issues we will all face. I also know most people have not been realistic in their planning.