Why “Retirement” Is a Dirty, Dangerous Word


Retirement has gone from being an expected right and privilege to a broken promise and a cruel joke. No use crying over spilled milk, but let’s stop talking about Retirement as if it’s going to happen – or at least as if it’s going to happen the way they told us it was going to happen.

Retirement is, at the very least, a misnomer. When we Boomers were growing up, the term conjured up images of our grandparents’ carefree lifestyle – all smiles, recreation and leisure time. The equation was: after working hard all their lives, they got to have fun. And we were told that this would happen for our parents, and then for us.

Well, our parents may have squeaked by and harvested the rewards of a well-played career, but the gravy train came to a sputtering halt for our generation, and the last ten years have been a wake-up call for all of us that the promise of a care-free end-of-life scenario and lifestyle just isn’t in the cards for most of us.

Let’s look at the word “retirement” for a second. Does it gibe with who we are or where we are as a generation? Retire means to withdraw, to pull back, to disengage. I don’t see that as an option – or even a desire – for the great majority of Boomers.

Once upon a time, this was appropriate. Our lives were shorter then. If we go back to the roots of contemporary society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, few people were living longer than 70, and were likely slowing down significantly starting in their early 60s. In those days, 60 was old. In those days, if you were in your 60s, you had grand-kids who were in their teens, or maybe even in their 20s. Today, if you’re in your 60s, it’s your kids who are in their 20s. According to U.S. Census projections, the fastest-growing segment of the total population is those 80 and over. Their growth rate is twice that of those 65 and over and almost 4-times that for the total population. In the United States, this group now represents 10% of the older population and will more than triple from 5.7 million in 2010 to over 19 million by 2050. 25% of people who reach age 65 will live past 90, according to the Social Security Administration. One in 10 will live past 95.

Think about it: we’re about to enter an era when a sizable majority of us will be living 25% or more of our lives over 65, compared to 13% for our parents and grandparents.

So I don’t think it makes sense for us to persist in the inaccurate and illusory Retirement dialectic, which is predicated on a number of outdated assumptions that need to be revised and updated. Let’s take a look:

1. We’re going to retire. This is increasingly unlikely, as all current surveys are telling us. Per Gallup, the actual retirement age is rising each year (60 in 2012, 62 in 2014), and 39% of us say we don’t expect to retire until after 66. 10% of us say we don’t think we’ll ever be able to retire. I am convinced that these are optimistic numbers. While I agree that we may not all be working 40 hours/week, it seems pretty clear that we are all going to have to keep working as long as we possibly can in today’s and tomorrow’s economy.

2. We’ll be able to retire if we successfully manage our savings. The stats vary, but if we’ve saved what Fidelity claims is the average portfolio value of $255,000, at a 4% rate of return (realistic/optimistic in today’s world?), that’s an additional $10,200/year to add to our Social Security benefit – not much help. On the other end of the statistical spectrum, I’ve seen it reported that 80% of our generation has less than $100,000 in retirement savings. Yet the advertising campaigns of the financial services companies would have us believe that Retirement is within everyone’s reach. If we just give them a call, they’ll show us how to spin straw into gold. These are, of course, the same institutions that created and then burst the housing bubble, wiping out our home equity, and sinking our retirement savings in the process. But they’re back with palms extended, looking for another chance to help us out. I don’t believe them. We need to shatter this illusion. The truth is we need to keep working.

3. We’re old, expensive and out of touch (i.e. unemployable). Maybe our parents were too old at 65, but we’re definitely still in the game. Since I began my practice of engaging with Boomers in promoting Reinvention as the answer to Retirement, I have encountered many, many people who are not taking their turnarounds lying down. While many of them are having a hard time, more and more of them are downshifting into a lower gear, and revving their lives back up. They’re opening businesses, going back to school, and generally dusting themselves off and improving their attitude towards themselves and towards what they can do. As empty nesters, many are happy to downsize their lives, and work for less money in jobs that are more rewarding, and more in line with who they are and what they want to do at this stage in their lives.

The question for us is this: do we really want to “retire” in our 60s? Forget about the money for a second:
Are we really no longer interested in participating actively in the world?
Are we no longer interested in being engaged in business?
Are we no longer interested in being engaged in the mainstream of society?
Are we no longer interested in interacting with younger generations and with mentoring and investing in their success?

If I’m still active, engaged, healthy, and want to work, why is society telling me I’m done? Why are we hearing the message that our generation needs to “move over” to let GenX and then GenY take over? Why are our years of experience, our network of contacts, and the wisdom borne of 6 decades on the planet somehow perceived as having no value to solving problems, innovating solutions, or managing co-workers?

How do we re-educate the business community on the value that we can deliver to this economy? Perhaps most of all, how do we re-educate one another to see ourselves as opening a new and exciting chapter, vs. scrambling for a way to survive as we slip inexorably down the drain?

Instead of promoting and discussing “Retirement,” we need to promote “Re-Engagement” as the mantra for this new uncharted life stage that some are calling a Second Act or an Encore Career. Marc Freedman, the CEO of Encore.org describes our situation in his book The Big Shift as an unprecedented life stage that defies categorization. It is not quite an extension of our careers: we’re finished being promoted up the ranks, but we still have plenty to offer. We are looking at things differently from this older vantage point. Our life experiences and challenges are adding a new dimension to our career experiences. In previous generations, there was no career application for those life experiences and challenges. New opportunities are presenting themselves and being recognized, perhaps most noticeably through social entrepreneurship. Freedman’s organization was set up to work with and to recognize social entrepreneurs over 60 who are making a difference in their communities. Encore.org’s research shows that more than 25 million Americans 50 to 70 years old are eager to share their skills, passions and expertise in encore careers that address social needs, typically in education, health https://antibioticsall.com care, human services and the environment.

While Encore.org and its Purpose Prize are at the vanguard of recognizing and rewarding this new life stage, our generation has more to do throughout the entire economy – not just in the non-profit sector. We need more advice and guidance about how to earn money, how to maximize our skills, and how to create jobs and careers that can sustain us so that we don’t have to live off our (vastly reduced) savings – or be a burden on younger generations. What about encouraging us to bolster our lives (and the economy, by the way) through renewal, re-engagement and restoring our careers, instead of withdrawing, fading away gracefully and quietly sliding into our graves?

I don’t know exactly what it’s all going to look like, but I’m game to get this conversation going and we can all figure it out together. If we continue to stay wedded to the Retirement paradigm, we’re going to stay stuck.

Rather than coast into 4th gear, withdraw from life’s challenges and rewards, we need to (like those enterprising Boomers I’ve discovered) downshift back into 2nd gear to be re-energized, re-inspired, productive, and interconnected, and re-engage with society in a new way – a new way that is appropriate for our age, but still vital and perhaps more resourceful than ever.

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John Tarnoff is a career transition coach, speaker and best-selling author who helps late-career professionals transition to meaningful second-act careers beyond traditional retirement.

Following a successful career as a Hollywood film executive and tech entrepreneur, he reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology to focus on professional development and training.

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