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The Selling of Retirement, And How We Bought It

A half-century later, America finds itself in the midst of a demographic revolution, propelled by the aging of 78 million baby boomers. By 2030 these individuals will make up between 20 percent and 25 percent of the overall population. A wave of "greedy geezers," some policy experts say, threatens to break upon us and wash away our fiscal health. While the full force of these demographics has yet to be felt, there is a degree of consensus in much of the current debate over Social Security and national savings: Graying means paying -- for those of us who are younger.

However, those who simply pair up the old lifestyle with demographic trends and declare that social insolvency lies ahead fail to understand that another transformation is unfolding in front of us. And it is as profound as the change that took place during the early days of Sun City.

_____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

The gift of longevity is behind the new shift in the way people think about retirement. In 1900 the average American lived to the not-so-ripe age of 47. Today that number is 77, and rising. And that's long enough for retirees to get bored. How much golf can you play?

As a result, now people seldom think of retirement as a final stage of life but rather as an interlude between stages. More and more individuals are "retiring" for a period to catch their breath before making the transition to a new chapter in life. Surveys show that the ideal of the golden years is going into eclipse.

But what's next for these individuals, many of whom face an identity crisis when they think about the future? Are they senior citizens? Elderly? They don't feel that way. Neither young nor old, they are finished with midlife, yet they can look forward to the likelihood of decades of vitality before becoming truly old. What might they rightly aspire to in the next phase? How will they define success?

While much about the evolution of goals and purpose of this period of life remains unclear, a central, defining feature is emerging. It is work. The vast majority of the boomers plan to continue working -- full-time, part-time, paid, unpaid -- in their so-called retirement years. According to a recent study by the AARP, nearly 80 percent of boomers are planning to continue in paid labor during their sixties and seventies. Already we've witnessed an uptick in the percentage of people over age 65 who choose to keep working.

This new generation of aging boomers seems poised to swap that old dream of the freedom from work for a new one built around the freedom to work -- in new ways, on new terms, to new ends. Indeed, inklings of such a vision are already appearing.

Consider a recent ad campaign from Home Depot and AARP announcing a new partnership to recruit older workers for the home renovation giant. Targeting men (and perhaps some women) who couldn't wait to get home from their midlife work to get to the toolshed, the campaign beckons them to trade in retirement for a new vision of what work can be. The slogan: "Passion Never Retires."

Fidelity Investments offers its own take. In a series of ads, the financial services company features an aging boomer in front of a classroom, graying temples, full of engagement. The message at the top: "What did you want to do before you started doing what you're doing?" (In AARP's recent research on the boomers and work, teaching was selected as the No. 1 preferred post-midlife occupation.) A few years ago, the Del Webb company even opened up a new Sun City outside not-particularly sunny Chicago, prompted in part by research showing that aging boomers want to remain near opportunities for continued work.

The trend is, of course, welcome news -- and not just for the public coffers. We now know that work is good for aging individuals themselves, for their health as well as their wallets. At the same time the nation faces the prospect of a labor shortage in many areas over the coming decades.

In the end, reinventing retirement will take more than marketing, more than coining today's equivalent of the golden years -- more even than retooling Social Security. It will require a new generation of policies, pathways and priorities.

A tall order, but the history of aging in America is one of innovation. Social Security and Medicare were invented out of whole cloth within the past 70 years. We didn't even have retirement communities or senior centers 50 years ago. In just half a century, we managed to redefine aging so thoroughly that the "golden" years image seemed as natural as the oxygen in the air.

Now, just 10 months before the first of tens of millions of baby boomers begin to turn 60, we need a transformation no less bold. We must create an aging America that swaps the old leisure ideal for one that balances the joys and responsibilities of engagement across the life span. And that could produce a society that works better for all generations.

Author's e-mail: mfreedman@civicventures.org

Marc Freedman is president of Civic Ventures, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that develops opportunities for older Americans to serve their communities. He is author of "Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America" (Public Affairs).

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