• 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.

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