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Outlook: Reconsidering Retirement

Marc Freedman
President, Civic Ventures
Monday, February 7, 2005; 12:00 PM

Seventy years ago President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed retirement for Americans by signing the Social Security Act. And 45 years ago, a real estate developer coined the phrase "golden years," opened the first retirement community in Arizona and helped sell a ready public on the idea that retirement was something to be longed for, not dreaded. Out of the workplace and out of the rocking chairs and onto the golf courses America's retirees went, if they could.

Now, has the time come for Americans to once again re-define their ideal image of retirement? In an Outlook piece on Sunday, Marc Freedman, president of Civic Ventures, suggests that a combination of longer lifespans, disillusionment with endless leisure, and the economic burdens of having one quarter of America's population in retirement makes it time to once again reinvent retirement.

Freedman, whose San Francisco-based nonprofit organization develops opportunities for older Americans to serve their communities, was discuss his article, The Selling of Retirement, And How We Bought It, on Monday, Feb. 7 at Noon ET.

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Washington, D.C.: Have you talked to many retirees? Are they willing to rethink retirement and possibly postpone days spent on golf greens?

Marc Freedman: We've been conducting focus groups with aging boomers and recent retirees around the country. A very powerful message that comes across in almost all these sessions is how tired people are at the conclusion of their midlife work. Overwork in the middle years has reached pathological proportions. So many people want to take a break, to retire for a while, essentially to get a sabaticol--knowing full well, even as they start this period that they are likely to get bored after a year or two or five. What they worry about, however, is whether they'll be able to get back into the game after stepping out for a stretch. As a result, many elect to keep plugging away, despite their need for a change of pace.


Arlington, Va.: What exactly is "Civic Ventures?"

Marc Freedman: Civic Ventures is a national non-profit organization, based in San Francisco, and focused on creating better opportunities for aging Americans to use their time, talent, and experience in areas where we desperately need these assets. Such as education, health care, and the non-profit sector. We played a key role in creating The Experience Corps, a national service program that mobilizes Americans 55 and up to help improve urban elementary schools. Experience Corps is the largest AmeriCorps program engaging older Americans. It is a wonderful example of how the generations can be brought together for mutual benefit. See www.experiencecorps.org


Charlottesville, Va.: Mr. Freedman

It seems that one of the biggest barriers we face to successfully "reinvent retirement" is America's denial about aging. "Anti-aging" creams and other junk are a multi-billion dollar business, illustrating how much we want to deny that we age.

How can our American insitutions, e.g. media, senior centers, government help break down this barrier?

Marc Freedman: It's true--and ironic. If you go back to the early days of American history the Puritans actually worshipped age. They believed living to a ripe old age was a sign from the divine, a sign of wisdom and grace. They used to do everything possible to appear older--wore white wigs, cut their clothes so the shoulders sloped, even lied on the census to say they were three or four years older than they were. We do the exact opposite every ten years. If a drug to accelerate the aging process had been available, the early Americans might have embraced it! Their favorite expression: "A hoary head is a crown of gold."


Aspen Hill, Md.: I think you are absolutely correct in recommending that people put off retirement longer than they have. But for how long? Maybe to 70 or 75? How many years of retirement is it reasonable to plan for?

I recently found a calculator on the Internet that gave me a rough estimation of my life expectancy based on my family history and personal habits -- it was 102. One of my grandmother's didn't retire until she was in her late 70s, which is sounding like a good age right now.

Marc Freedman: I think we've stretched retirement to the breaking point. It was created to give individuals the chance to get a well-deserved rest over the brief period stretching between the end of work and the end of life. Now, as you point out, this period could be a time as long as midlife in duration. For some people that will mean a very long vacation, for others a very long midlife career. But what about the possibility not only of a new stage of life, but a new stage of work. We invest life stages about once a century in this country. There was no such thing as adolescence before the early part of the last century. Now I believe this new part of the lifespan is opening up in the post-midlife, pre-elderly period. But what are the unique possibilities of such a development? I hope we are able to define them in a way that makes full use of the extraordinary human and social capital in the aging population.


Newport, Va.: I have worked in the field of "older workers" for many years and recently completed a dissertation study relating to bridge employment and older workers. I found that many adults face age discrimination when they tried to go back into their job market.

Marc Freedman: Two problems seem to persist. One is outright descrimination of older workers. The other, just as important, is a lack of appreciation of the value that experience confers. We made an extraordinary investment in developing the human capital of the current and coming generation of 60-somethings. The higher education system, especially public education, was expanded dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s. Plus this population has developed a great deal of knowledge as workers, parents, community members over the years--essentially, in building their social as well as human capital. Will we make good use of these assets, recapturing the investments made not only by society but these individuals themselves? Will we realize an "experience dividend," or squander what these individuals have learned over three or four decades? Will this population end up in work that they could have done at 22, without having lived and learned?


Silver Spring, Md.: I read in the New York Times that people have been cashing in their IRAs to buy apartments. That, plus lunacy like interest-only mortgages, and the lack of commitment to preserving existing middle-class and working-class houses and apartments means people won't be able to afford to retire. They will be paying mortgages and high rents. Also, 40s and 50s are awful years for downsizing. I was hit at 40; if I had tried grad school I would have piled up debt. So I am struggling to find entry-level work. I expect to work at least part-time until I drop.

Marc Freedman: Your comment prompts an important point about financial planning. For decades we planned for outright retirement, for the freedom from work and a life focused on other pursuits. So powerful was the lure of this goal that many people sacrificed in midlife to get there as early as possible. Early retirement became a badge of success. But then what? As so many I talked to for Prime Time told me: how do you play golf for thirty years? Many of them missed not only the sense of purpose provided by work, but the relationships that went with them, the opportunity to accomplish something together with others.

I'd like to see an expansion in help for individuals not only to plan financially for the next chapter--to help in figuring out what they want to do with the next decades of their life. Now most people are thrown back on their own devices, and all too many are spinning their wheels.

We're currently working with public libraries, community colleges, and other multi-generational organizations in Cleveland, Phoenix, and other parts of the country to help individuals navigate their way from the middle years to a new stage of meaningful engagement. The project is called The Next Chapter.


Palo Alto, Calif.: I love your ideas. Do you really think that older adults can help solve some of the problems plaguing our communities? What kinds of problems might older adults be able to help with? And do you have suggestions for what the President and members of Congress might do to help make this happen. It seems that our country would be a lot better for it.

Marc Freedman: Thank you for the kind words!

It's easy to romanticize the wisdom of the aged, or for that matter the value of experience. Most mathematicians make their greatest contributions when they are very young. There are other examples, as well, where experience doesn't prove to be a virtue.

All that said, I think that there are many areas in our society where we not only need human beings to do those things that only human beings can do, but where there is a particularly good fit between the assets of this burgeoning group of older Americans and urgent human resource needs. We're going to need over 2 million new teachers in the coming decade. What about a version of Teach for America for people leaving midlife work? Especially on focused on math and science?

It's worth noting that many of the new opportunities and possibilities are being created by older Americans themselves--coming to this phase of their lives, unwilling to stuff envelopes or staff the travelers aid desk. Instead they are taking matters into their own hands and fashioning entirely new opportunities. These social innovators are remaking the landscape and in quite spectacular ways. Not far from you, in San Mateo, for example, a group of retired doctors and nurses founded the Samaritan House Free Clinic, which provides over 5,000 hours of free medical care to those in need, staffed primarily by older health care professionals.


Washington, D.C.: Although I am in general agreement with your thinking, I can't see much progress on this issue until ageism in the workplace is addressed. A recent article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy noted that age discrimination is as rife in the not-for-profit world as the for profit sector. Many of us want to work, others of us will have to work. But not necessarily as greeters for WalMart. Please comment. Thank you.

Marc Freedman: Your comment echoes many others arriving this morning--essentially depicting a talented, energetic population eager to remain propductive but concerned about being able to realize this desire--in a society that doesn't appreciate what they have to offer. In other words, a group 'all dressed up with few compelling places to go.'

I think that your point, and the others, accurately describe the reality. In many ways we're at a juncture akin to the time when women started moving into the paid workforce in droves a generation back. There was little appreciation of their talent and potential contribution. This situation was a true in education--how many medical schools were dismayed that few of their students were women?--as in the workplace. Yet women forced their way in. I believe the current situation is another example of a consumer driven movement. And with the prospect of a labor shortage looming, the time for this change may be impending.


Ivy, Va.: Following the question about retirement age and a new "life stage" in which more folks will want to work:

How can we get employers -- private, public, and nonprofit -- to better prepare for a booming population that will want more professional part time positions, bridge jobs, phased in retirement, etc.?

Marc Freedman: You raise one of the biggest questions: how do we get employers to be more receptive and more sophisticated at using the resource in the aging population. Fortunately, there already are some groups--for profit, non profit, and public--that are getting ahead of the curve. I'm delighted that AARP is rewarding these employers through an annual listing of the 50 Best Employers for Americans over 50. This project is also highlighting how the most innovative employers are doing it. Check out www.aarp.org for more information.


Bethesda, Md.: Do you think the White House Conference on Aging will focus on some of the issues you have raised in your article?

Marc Freedman: The White House Conference will have a very full agenda--given that the oldest old segment of the population is growing faster than any other, and the needs of this group are particularly urgent. Still, the vast majority of the population is in the position to contribute to society, and their needs to live a life that still matters will have to be addressed. At the very first White House Conference on Aging, JFK said: We've added years to life, now it is time to add life to those years. Amen!


Fairfax, Va.: Re: older health care professionals. Here's a good example of a great way for seniors to contribute. But in healthcare as well as many other areas where technological change is rapid, we need some way for retired or semi-retired people to maintain and update their skills. The opportunities for this are ususally marketed to those who are working full-time, and are made affordable by one's income or subsidized by employers. How can we deal with this need, so these older professionals can remain current and productive?

Marc Freedman: Great point. And it raises a larger one. What should higher education look like for a society with a very different map of life than existed for previous generations!


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