washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Sunday Sections > Sunday Outlook

The Selling of Retirement, And How We Bought It

By Marc Freedman
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page B01

On New Year's Eve 1959, the team launching the new Sun City retirement community, the first such large-scale venture in America, sat around a table at Manuel's Place, a Mexican restaurant in Peoria, Ariz. The mood was anxious. For months the team had been running national advertising touting "An Active New Way of Life" for older people. The next morning was Sun City's grand opening. Would anyone show up?

The group had reason to be worried, according to materials from Sun City's Historical Society. Their boss, the formidable Del Webb, had already sunk $2 million into developing the community exclusively for the group he called "55 and better." The heart of the company's market research? A quick trip to the retirement haven of St. Petersburg, Fla., where one of Webb's lieutenants interviewed restless seniors perched on park benches. Every psychiatrist and gerontologist the Webb executives consulted had told them they were crazy; older people would never leave their friends and family to head off to the God-forsaken desert of 1960s Arizona.

_____Live Discussion_____
Monday, Feb. 7, Noon ET: Marc Freedman discusses his Sunday Outlook article about why it's time for Americans to re-define their ideal image of retirement.
_____Security Matters_____

Security has become the word of our age: Last week in his State of the Union speech, President Bush used it 29 times - 7 in reference to national security and 22 in discussing Social Security. But as the two pieces here show, security has always been a goal, not a given.

What Bin Laden Sees in Hiroshima, By Steve Coll

The Selling of Retirement, and How We Bought It, By Marc Freedman

Who's Counting on Social Security? Not We Twenty-Somethings, By Laura Thomas

It's Not Your Grandfather's Retirement

Forget the Protestant work ethic. Most Americans are ready to hang up their boots, ties, work tools and keyboards when the time comes. That makes for easy sales for the nation's retirement industry.

A Harris Interactive poll done in spring 2004 for Pulte Homes Inc. showed that the top retirement priorities for baby boomers are tending to their health and wellness (23 percent), traveling (22 percent) and relaxing (19 percent). Far behind on the list of priorities: volunteering in the community (2 percent), starting a new business (1 percent) and going back to school (less than 1 percent).

Nonetheless, there has been a small uptick in the percentage of people age 65 or older who still work, according to a February 2004 AARP report called "Aging and Work." That percentage dropped from 49.6 percent in 1950 for men to 30.2 percent in 1965 to a low of 16.5 percent in 1998. It crept back up to 17.8 percent in 2002.

Because women became more accepted in the workplace after World War II, the percentage of women age 65 and older who continued to work rose from 10.7 percent in 1950 to a high of 11.9 percent in 1960 before sliding to a low of 8.1 percent in 1985. Since 1998, the percentage has risen steadily to 9.9 percent in 2002. And that turn upward happened before the economic slowdown that followed the Sept. 11, 2001 attack, suggesting a change in mindset among older Americans.

Some of the rise in the frequency with which older Americans keep working may be because of changes in Social Security benefits. As part of the package of changes signed into law in 1983 to fix the system's finances, the retirement age for those seeking full benefits was raised starting in 2000. (People can still retire at age 62 and receive partial benefits.) Anyone born in 1937 or earlier can retire with full Social Security benefits starting at age 65. The age rises gradually so that those born in 1960 and later can retire with full benefits only starting at age 67.

These days, more Americans who do retire want to live busy lives, opting for cultural centers rather than golf courses, and family rather than good weather.

"The myth of retirement, of no longer being an active member of society, is being shattered," said a press release for Pulte, which now owns the company Del Webb started. Ken Plonski, a spokesman for a subsidiary of the company, told the Christian Science Monitor in 1997 that "We don't build shuffleboard courts any more."

-- Steven Mufson, Outlook staff

And even if these retirees were willing to think about it, there were other hurdles. Breaking the uncomfortable silence around the table at Manuel's, Owen Childress, the manager responsible for sales at Sun City, voiced the question that had been plaguing him for months: "I'm worried. . . . How am I going to get a 30-year mortgage on a guy who is 65 years old?"

The next morning, however, the group found a scene they could never have imagined. Lined up for two miles were cars filled with older men and women, converging on Sun City from all over the country. Their destination: a converted cotton field where six model homes -- tiny Levittown-style dwellings christened the Nottingham, the Monticello, the Norfolk, the Sherwood, the Sierra and the Kentworth -- sat incongruously on the edge of a makeshift golf course.

By the end of the weekend, 100,000 people in all would turn up.

From those small blades of putting-green grass and that collection of modest homes, an entire industry would grow around the dream of retirement as leisure -- as the "golden years," a phrase coined by Webb and his company. Instead of being dreaded years of decline, retirement would become something people longed for. Through the magic of marketing, retirement no longer meant only the end of work. It was sold as the beginning of a new, even a better life.

This dream would not only transform what it meant to grow older in America, but would ultimately lay the seeds for today's alarm about the graying of the baby boom generation and the viability of Social Security and other pension programs. The unanswered question: How will we ever be able to afford a leisure class that makes up a quarter of the population?

The success of Sun City was fueled not only by the marketing genius of Webb and his company, but by the pent-up demand from people unhappy with their lot. A gradual marginalization of older people had taken place over the previous 25 years. While the goal of the Social Security Act in 1935 had been, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, to "give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age," a key side effect was to lure older workers out of the labor market to make room for the hordes of unemployed young people who were seen as a potential source of social unrest.

With the end of the Depression and World War II, growing numbers of Americans retired, but in doing so cut themselves off from work and thereby much of society. Rocking aimlessly on the porch, they assumed "roleless roles," in the words of a leading gerontologist of the time. As men and women began to live extended, healthier lives, and as the period between the end of work and the end of life grew steadily longer, the question of the purpose of this period in life grew more and more urgent and wrenching.

"Too old to work, too young to die," was how, in the late 1940s, labor leader Walter Reuther characterized the period of limbo waiting after the middle years. Even the language seemed to contribute to this conclusion; the word retirement comes from the old French retirer, meaning "to go off into seclusion."

Indeed, so many people so dreaded retirement during the early postwar years that it created economic as well as psychological issues. The financial services industry found it hard to sell pensions to Americans loath not only to plan for but even to think about the grim existence awaiting them at the end of their working days. Desperate, the pension purveyors realized that they needed to re-brand the entire concept of aging.

To make retirement more appetizing, pension and annuity marketers in the 1950s seized on the notion of aristocratic leisure, depicting retirement not as a fate for people too old to work yet too young to die, but as an age of liberation -- from responsibility, from work, from the constraints of midlife. It was the chance at a second childhood. Graying as playing. Addressing the National Industrial Conference Board in 1952, the vice president of the Mutual Life Insurance Co. urged America's major corporations to begin preparing employees for retirement at age 50. He called upon the assembled companies to do a better job promoting the idea "that old age can be beautiful, and that the best of life is yet to come."

It would take the better part of a decade, and Webb's entrepreneurial genius, for this new concept of the American dream to be fully realized. Once communities like Webb's Sun City and its chief rival, Leisure World, emerged as emblems of retirement, developers, the pension industry and a vast leisure sector followed. In a relatively brief period, they transformed the ideal of aging into one of an endless vacation.

And a remarkable transformation it was: In 1950, half the men over 65 remained in the workforce. By 2000 the number was less than 18 percent. At the same time, older adults emerged as the biggest consumers of leisure activities in America. Soon the goal of retirement was replaced by a new dream: early retirement.

CONTINUED    1 2    Next >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company