There are things about his job that Jim Martin doesn't love, like getting up at 5:25 each morning so he can squeeze in a workout at the gym before eating breakfast en route to work. Or the trafficky hour-long drive from his Manassas condo to his Annandale office, and the same lousy drive back. By the time he slogs home, fixes himself a martini and has dinner with his wife, there's not much time left for all the other things he'd like to be doing -- learning Spanish, for instance, or painting with watercolors. People at his stage of life are supposed to be able to indulge such interests.
But any gripes are outweighed by the things he does appreciate about his job developing spreadsheets and tracking income for the Purple Heart Foundation. There's the salary that buttresses an upper-middle-class life he's loath to give up, of course, but he also values the liveliness, the stimulation, the feeling of contributing to an honorable endeavor. In particular, he cherishes his small cadre of co-workers at the organization, which provides services for veterans and their families. "I love these people like children," he says one morning, settling in at his computer. "And some of them are young enough to be my children."
A few days ago, the staff put together a lunch to celebrate his birthday. His colleague across the hall picked up sandwiches; someone brought balloons (one is still wilting in Martin's office); someone else contributed a key lime pie with a single candle. Everyone sang, then presented Martin with a card signed with affectionate insults, which he's tacked to his bulletin board. "With age comes wisdom," one colleague wrote. "You must be VERY wise."
He is 71, a joke-teller and raconteur with a broad, ruddy face, a remarkable amount of wavy silver hair and empathic gray-green eyes. His endocrinologist regularly thwacks him in the midsection and says, "You've gotta lose that," but he actually looks fine, fit and healthy.
It's something of an illusion. "I have two diseases that will kill me one day; it's a matter of when," Martin likes to say, cheerfully. He's diabetic, and there's a pocket sewn inside the flowered Hawaiian shirt he's worn to work this morning to hold an insulin pump. Later in the morning, he unzips a small black kit, as he does four times each day, wipes his fingertip with an alcohol swab and tests his blood sugar. "Ooh, 216, very high, very high," he mutters, checking the meter, then using the pump to administer additional insulin.
Having lived for years with diabetes -- along with high blood pressure and, more recently, coronary artery disease -- Martin found it perhaps less frightening than it otherwise might have been to be seated across from an oncologist last winter. The doctor was so intent on shuffling papers, never quite meeting his eyes, that Martin braced for bad news, and he got it: "Mr. Martin, I have to tell you that you have leukemia." But it was chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a very slow form, the oncologist went on to say. One of Martin's other illnesses -- this was evidently the good news -- would probably kill him first.
So, having assessed the personal and financial costs and benefits, in the way that 45 years as a manager and consultant trained him to do, Martin is still happy to come to the office each day. After his birthday lunch, he thanked the singers, cautioned, "Don't go on the nightclub circuit just yet," and went back to work.
Which makes him at once an unusual figure -- only about 14 percent of those over 65 remain in the labor force -- and a potential role model. A massing alliance of researchers and analysts, lobbyists and advocates, opinion leaders, wonks of all sorts, would likely applaud him, because Martin's doing just what they wish the rest of us would do. Having examined the demographic trends, the labor force stats, the health and longevity data, the projected costs of Social Security, Medicare and other government programs, the experts have come to a strikingly widespread consensus: Never mind that golden-years stuff. Keep working.
Not forever; no one's proposing to abolish retirement. But after many decades in which people embarked on retirement at younger and younger ages, we're now being urged to delay it, possibly by quite a few years.
Forget that dot-com-era idea of cashing out at 55, the wonks advise. Let 62, Social Security's "early" retirement age, pass, and its "full" retirement ages, too. Seventy is the new 65.
At the heart of this proposed change is a fundamental mismatch: We are living longer, remaining healthy longer. We're better educated, less likely to have labored in coal mines and steel plants that cripple or deplete us. Thus, we're much better able than our forebears to remain in the workforce -- but we're not doing it. We're bailing out, most of us, as soon as we possibly can.
The idea of contemporary retirement, a phase of life that caps decades of work with years of freedom and leisure, has become so ingrained, so pervasive, that we forget how recent an invention it really is. It's younger than Jim Martin.
The major exodus from work began after World War II. Social Security first paid benefits in 1940, expanded to include more workers through the '50s, was bolstered by Medicare in the '60s (when that early retirement option also appeared) and was further strengthened in the '70s, when Congress built in annual cost-of-living increases. Like the private pension plans also proliferating during this period, Social Security was meant to protect those who'd grown too ill or frail to continue working, but also to encourage older employees to yield to the incoming tide of youth.
It worked amazingly well: A graph depicting older workers' participation in the labor market over the past half-century resembles a ski slope. Nearly half of American men over 65 were in the workforce in 1950; by 1985, fewer than 16 percent had or were seeking jobs. The proportion of men age 55 to 64 in the labor force has fallen sharply as well. Most workers now retire in their early sixties -- because they can.
But also because retirement has become increasingly attractive. Greater wealth means that most retirees no longer need to move in with their children, but can live independently. Technology, as MIT economist Dora Costa points out in her influential book The Evolution of Retirement, has provided lots of affordable new forms of recreation, from RVs to TVs to PCs. Marketers, bent on persuading retirees to buy vitamins and Sun Belt condos, have created the now-familiar image of that silver-haired couple who spend so much time dancing on beaches and cruise ships.
"It's come to be an expected part of the life course," says David Ekerdt, director of the gerontology center at the University of Kansas. "We're encouraged to want it, plan for it, yearn for it. It's the new ending of the American dream."
Vastly increased longevity isn't really a crisis; it's one of humanity's great accomplishments. That a man who retires at 62 will now survive long enough to receive Social Security benefits for an average 17 years, a woman for 20 years -- this is good news.
But how to finance all those additional years, with the largest generation in the nation's history about to retire? Starting in two years, the first of 78 million baby boomers will turn 62 and begin applying for Social Security benefits, then become eligible for Medicare three years later. FDR, and the other governmental architects of retirement, didn't anticipate this.
In May, economist Eugene Steuerle, part of a squadron of retirement researchers at the Urban Institute and a boomer himself at 58, warned a congressional committee that his generation's legacy might be "to bequeath a government whose almost sole purpose is to finance our own consumption in retirement." Steuerle, a leading alarm-sounder about such issues, predicts that tens of millions of additional early retirees could not only bankrupt the programs meant to underwrite their retirement but also soak up so much of the federal budget that there's virtually nothing left for any other purpose.
Moreover, after the boom comes the baby bust, the sharply smaller group born between 1965 and 1976. It's not only too small to support all the retired boomers, it's too small to fill all the jobs a healthy economy will require. For the first time in decades, analysts are worried about a labor shortage -- of about 10 million workers by the end of this decade.
So one prescription is obvious. Whatever else lawmakers do or don't do -- if they raise the age of Social Security or Medicare eligibility, if they establish private retirement accounts, if they index benefits for longevity -- it would be a fine thing, the wonks agree, if we'd keep working.
It's practically the public-spirited thing to do. If we remained in the workforce longer -- and labor force participation among older workers does appear to be inching upward -- we could postpone the age at which we receive Social Security checks, thus easing the drain. The higher taxes we would keep paying (including continued Social Security contributions) would help fill the federal coffers. And we could ward off a labor shortage that might threaten the whole economy.
We'd reap personal benefits, too, the keep-working partisans argue. "The biggest financial decision most people make is when to retire," Steuerle says. "It's far more important than whether they put their money in stocks or bonds." Most retirees, he points out, have few such private assets; they're mainly dependent on government. And in terms of Social Security benefits, "just working one more year often gives people a good 6 to 10 percent more income every year after that."
Maybe we'd even enjoy those senior years more, since studies show that retirees engaged in "productive" activities -- including paid work -- are more satisfied than the unengaged.
Delaying retirement, however, requires serious changes, some of them distinctly unpopular. It means, among other things:
(a) Modifying traditional pension practices and regulations that discourage people from working longer.
(b) Persuading employers to get as excited about retaining or hiring older workers as labor analysts are.
And (c) subjecting the societal expectations and sense of entitlement built up over 70 years to a fast U-turn.
The last one could be the hard part. After urging sixtysomething workers to relax and withdraw, to look forward to days without time clocks, to dance and play golf and volunteer and flee winter without guilt because they'd earned these years of income-without-work, America proposes to add a loud "Not yet!"
A few friends are coming over for a barbecue this evening, so Jim and Anna Martin hit the Old Town farmer's market this morning and picked up fresh produce and a raspberry pie. Now Anna is flitting around the kitchen making deviled eggs, while Jim -- aka "the grillmeister" -- attends to an important matter in their home office.
He's assembling several copies of a durable power of attorney (for Virginia) and a designation of health care surrogate (required in Florida, where Anna's mother left her a small prefab house they visit once or twice a year). "That little girl in Florida got us thinking," Jim says, referring to the late Terry Schiavo, who hadn't put her end-of-life wishes in writing. He and Anna now have, and he's folding a set of signed documents into an envelope for his son, Jeffery, in Little Rock, Ark. "We put one in the safe-deposit box, we have one here in the house, and we're sending one to him."
Task accomplished, he joins Anna in the kitchen; it's once more time to test his blood sugar. "One twenty-seven," he says. "A little high, but not bad, not bad at all."
He keeps his diabetes under control, Jim says with some pride. But managing that, and his other health problems, requires unrelenting effort, involving not only frequent doctors' visits but "every pill known to Western medicine." One of the cabinets holds a thicket of little bottles: For the hypertension he's had for 30 years, an ACE inhibitor and a drug to lower triglycerides. For the coronary artery disease, a beta blocker, a blood thinner and a cholesterol-reducer. Pills to treat acid reflux and nerve pain from his diabetes. Plus various herbal medicines and a host of vitamins and minerals.
Ten years ago, Jim had an angioplasty to reopen a blocked artery. "I haven't had any more problems with it," says Jim, whose discussions of this stuff tend to be matter of fact, even comical. "But whenever you get a pain anywhere in your upper body, you think, 'Uh oh, this is it . . . goodbye, cruel world.'" And there is pain. Five years ago, he had surgery to fuse several vertebrae in his neck. His diabetes makes simply walking painful most of the time, though he chooses not to dwell on that.
Under the circumstances, it's not surprising that his wife and his two children, from an earlier marriage, express mixed feelings about Jim's continuing to work. Anna, a decade younger and still teaching orchestral music in the Prince William County public schools, is in favor. "Business has been his life," she says. "It makes him feel functional." His son concurs. But his daughter, Laura, in Lafayette, Ind., isn't so sanguine. "He's worked long enough and hard enough," she argues. "People, when they get to retirement age, should be able to retire."
Martin has indeed worked hard, ever since he graduated from high school in Attica, Ind., a two-traffic-light factory town, in 1952. His family couldn't afford to send him to school, so he spent three years in the Army, then entered Purdue University on the GI Bill, earning a physics degree and a master's in industrial administration.
Once he'd graduated, Martin spent nearly two decades managing manufacturing plants, first an Indiana factory that produced retail display fixtures, then an office equipment maker in North Carolina. For the second half of his career -- though it may turn out to be the middle third -- he was a management and training consultant with such clients as U.S. Steel, Clairol, Philips Lighting and several big pharmaceutical houses. During much of that time he was such a road warrior, leaving home on Sunday afternoons and not returning until Friday evenings, that when Anna received a tempting job offer in 1989, the thought of relocating from North Carolina to Virginia barely fazed him. "As long as there's an airport," he told her, and they moved.
Partway through his sixties, though, he began to sense a change. "Most of the mid-management people you work with are in their forties to mid-fifties," Martin says. "They don't want to hire old guys . . . I could discern what was coming down the road." And the travel was wearing him out. He started looking for "a real job, where you go to the same office every day." The director of Senior Employment Resources in Annandale, where he'd volunteered to teach a weekly computer class for older workers, told him the Purple Heart Foundation needed a part-time consultant.
"Jim's a great asset," says the foundation's executive director, Dick Gallant. "I discuss things with him. If you have a problem, he can bring in multiple years of experience." Initially, Martin warded off Gallant's offers of full-time employment; he liked having long weekends and besides, the salary wasn't high enough. Then three years ago, Gallant upped the offer, and it was.
The money matters. Martin acknowledges that he could retire right now -- on his $1,200 a month from Social Security, a small pension from the Indiana plant and personal savings -- but he couldn't live in this rambling new 2,300-square-foot condo with a gas fireplace and an oversize bathtub and two decks under construction. (A ceramic plaque in the bedroom reads: "Do Not Resist Growing Old -- Many Are Denied the Privilege.") Purchased for about $320,000 two years ago, it's not cheaper than the house they sold at the other end of town, but it's easier to let someone else worry about the yardwork and maintenance.
He could retire -- but he probably couldn't afford to accompany Anna and her students to music festivals in Europe each spring. The Martins have visited England and Scotland and next year are planning their fourth trip to Maastricht in the Netherlands. Their season tickets to the National Symphony Orchestra, and those gracious restaurant meals before the concerts, might have to go. Eating out in general would have to be trimmed back.
"We're working because we want this lifestyle," Jim explains. "And we'd have to change it if we stopped. We'd have to move someplace less expensive, or I'd have to win the lottery." But he doesn't buy lottery tickets. And Anna plans to work for several years -- she likes teaching and also wants to fatten her pension -- so that rules out, for now, decamping for North Carolina or another low-cost location. Plus, there was that grim period five years ago when Jim's love of technology, and tech stocks, meant that each monthly brokerage statement looked scarier than the last. "You'd keep watching that bottom number go down and down and down, and you'd say, 'Is it ever going to end?'" He estimates he lost about $150,000 in paper profits.
So his job, which pays something more than $40,000 a year, makes the difference between getting by okay and enjoying the standard of living he and Anna are accustomed to. Happily, it also meets Jim's personal criterion for enjoyable work, which is that you don't dread Sunday nights.
"The only thing I don't like about it," he says, "is the same thing I wouldn't like about any job: the lack of freedom, the time to do what I want to do." If he feels like spending a month or two in Florida this winter -- an attractive notion -- he can't.
But he exhibits little apparent regret or frustration about this trade-off. It helps to be, as his son, Jeff, calls him, "the most positive man I've ever met," an admirer of Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking, the mother of all self-help books.
No more inclined to grumble about work than about his health, Jim marches on with acceptance bordering on fatalism. "I'm a firm believer that I'm where I'm supposed to be right now, doing what I'm supposed to do," he says. "And when it's time to do something different, that's what will happen."
Working longer is also in the cards for the people Milton Chavis ushers into his tiny cubicle at the D.C. Office on Aging, though most can't summon the same equanimity as Jim Martin.
Chavis and three other counselors place 600 seniors a year in training programs or jobs, most of them part time. These aren't high-paying positions -- McDonald's starts employees at $6.60 to $7 an hour through its McMasters program, and any job offering $9 to $13 an hour constitutes "big-time income," Chavis says -- but they make a difference nonetheless.
Clients sometimes tell Chavis that they're doing fine, just feeling a bit restless. "I need to get out of the house," they say. He knows better. Nearly all rely on pensions or Social Security checks that pay less than $1,000 a month. They're mostly women, nearly all African American, some with limited computer skills or physical limitations -- the very groups that advocacy groups such as AARP worry most about if government benefits are cut or qualifying ages raised.
So Chavis hooks people up with temp agencies, with universities that need exam proctors, with RFK Stadium and the MCI Center. "I have quite a crew over there working the Mystics and Wizards games" -- ticket takers, ushers, food service workers. Two years ago, a national program called Experience Works, which promotes employment for seniors, named him the District's outstanding older worker.
"You won't be able to help everybody," recognizes Chavis, who has one client who is 82. "You just sit here and weep sometimes." But Chavis doesn't really spend much time lamenting. A lifelong District resident (Dunbar High, Class of '55), he's distinguished by unremitting enthusiasm. He's the first one at work each morning, turning on the lights by 7:15, even though the Office on Aging doesn't open for business until 9. He always meets with clients in a suit, tie and highly polished shoes (he's an Air Force veteran). His favorite word is "fantastic!"
This morning, for instance, Howard University is calling, seeking someone to work in the law library. "Oh, fantastic," Chavis burbles, scribbling notes. "Twenty hours? That's fine . . . Beautiful. I really appreciate the call." He has four or five people in mind even before he hangs up the receiver.
He has high hopes, too, for Hosea Myers, who is 66 and, like most clients, has walked in without an appointment. "I did construction work a long time ago, 25 years ago," Myers recounts as the two sit down together. "And I drove a moving van." Now he can't lift much because of a disability; he also needs time to care for his mother. "It's so hard to get on, you know."
Chavis listens quietly. "I could get you something real light," he suggests. "Like cleaning a post office in the morning, 7:30 to 11 or so. I have the forms here . . ."
Eight dollars an hour sounds good to Myers. He'll bring in his resume -- "a little outdated," but Chavis will help him revise it -- in a few days. "You're a good man, and I appreciate you," Chavis tells him, clasping Myers's hand. "I'll look for you next week."
Chavis's empathy comes partly from a 29-year career in city government, much of it spent recruiting kids for the federal Job Corps, but also from knowing quite well what it's like to be an older worker who needs a job. "I am just the same," he says. "No different, no better."
He's 68. Ten years ago, as the D.C. Department of Employment Services was facing staff cuts, Chavis -- then also president of Local 1000 of the American Federation of Government Employees -- walked over to the personnel office. There he learned that between his pension and the Social Security benefits he could collect at 62, his income would soon amount to about $30,000 a year. "I said, Ooh, fine." His wife, Georgia, already retired from an Army administrative job, had a pension, too, worth about $16,000 a year.
The Chavises had no personal savings -- they'd grown up in a time and place when work, not investment, was the supposed key to security -- but this seemed enough to retire on. At a farewell bash downtown, Milton's friends and co-workers toasted him with champagne, and one colleague sang "I Believe I Can Fly."
"I thought the kids would be gone, and we could have extra," says Georgia. "But it didn't work out that way."
They're sitting at their dining room table at the Fort Chaplin Apartments on East Capitol Street, the complex they downsized into after unloading a four-bedroom house on C Street SE. They'd refinanced their mortgage so often, mostly to pay for parochial schools in Prince George's County for their three children, that the house had become a burden instead of an asset. But this $825-a-month apartment, intended for the two of them after the kids headed off, was affordable.
For years, Milton had held a second job as a security guard or janitor in downtown office buildings. Georgia picked him up at 1 or 2 in the morning, then both reported for their day jobs after a few hours' sleep. In retirement, "I envisioned just she and I hitting the road at our leisure," Milton remembers. "I'd like to feel I have that kind of freedom." He also wanted to write about his life, "just for me." Maybe he and Georgia could visit Europe and Africa. Maybe he could complete his own interrupted college studies.
But their parental expenses didn't end, even as two children went to college and then all three enlisted in the Navy. The Chavises found themselves paying off college loans, buying cell phones and sending care packages, reducing the balances on the kids' charge cards to rehab their credit ratings, taking over one son's child support payments for a time. They sent money to their grandchildren. And, Milton says, "we never anticipated that the cost of living would skyrocket the way it has. Food. Gas." In 2000, when a colleague he'd worked with years ago moved to the Office on Aging and offered him a contract, he took it gladly.
Now he's even gladder. To their parents' surprise and puzzlement, the two younger children, 30-year-old Kimberly and 36-year-old Miguel, left the Navy after serving in the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, and have moved back home. Each is getting a degree at the University of the District of Columbia.
So the Chavises find themselves supporting not two people, but four. Those plastic storage boxes stacked around the living and dining rooms belong to Miguel, who sleeps on the sofa. Kimberly has the second bedroom, shared on weekends with Miguel's daughter Janae, who generally lives with her mother in Maryland.
How long they will remain in residence is a subject of family jokes that aren't entirely jokes. Miguel is completing a bachelor's degree in psychology and vows that, "when he gets everything together, he's going to get a house, and we'll have our own side, our own door," his mother reports. "So, I'm waiting." She and Milton have a good laugh. Kimberly, who expects to finish her master's in counseling next spring and has a full-time security job, feels very conscious of her parents' sacrifices, but she suspects her dad would work anyway, whether she was living at home or not. "With his work ethic, he'll continue to do it," she thinks. "If he felt he was tired, he didn't want to go on, that's another matter."
But Milton does tire at times. He's paid to work from 9 to 3 four days a week, but his early arrival makes for a much longer day, and he sometimes uses his supposed day off to visit prospective employers,
lobbying them to hire his clients. When Georgia picks him up after work and
drives him home, he takes a three-hour nap so that he can stay up to watch a basketball game or "American Idol." His doctor, concerned about his high blood pressure, keeps upping the dosage of his medication; he has also had a couple of episodes of gout, but he hobbled to work anyway.
He declines to complain about any of this. "That's real negativity," he says. "For me to keep my spirit and my joy, I try not to buy into that." Besides, Milton loves his job, which he calls "my purpose, my mission and my passion, all rolled into one."
He has noticed, however, that "the expectation that one day, you get to sit back and take it easy, sit on the porch and drink iced tea like you see in the movies," is fading. For his clients and, ultimately, perhaps, for himself, "retirement is a myth."
Are Americans willing to peel those "I'm Spending My Children's Inheritance" stickers off their car bumpers and defer retirement?
Some already have, of course.
They might work more for pleasure than profit, like Rita Weiss, who is 70 and still spending 20 hours a week with the 4-year-olds in Washington Hebrew Congregation's preschool program in Potomac. Both she and her husband, Irv, a former library manager now part-timing at Barnes & Noble in Rockville, are drawing federal pensions and could stop working, but why? "We enjoy the people, we enjoy having a purpose. I don't like to shop, and I'd get tired of going to lunch," she says crisply.
Others have less jolly reasons. Stuart Taylor thought it would be "fun" to do a little substitute teaching -- two days a week sounded ideal -- after he left a 33-year sales career with Procter & Gamble. But in the spring of 2000, he watched P&G's stock price drop by nearly half in a single day: "It cost me literally a million dollars." So, at 65, he's spending three or four days a week in Montgomery County high schools and middle schools.
John Bartlett, a chemical and nuclear engineer about to turn 70, has been an academic, a consultant and an assistant secretary at the Department of Energy. He's one of those people who hoped never to retire; his wife Joan, a psychologist, felt the same way. But five years ago, an auto accident caused her such severe brain damage that she had to relinquish her practice at 58. "It all came apart at about the same time -- the market dropped, she had the accident, she lost her career and business," John says. "This is draining the hell out of us."
He connected with the Senior Environmental Employment program, which supplies workers over 55 to environmental agencies, and he now works full time at the EPA's Federal Triangle headquarters. His co-workers are "really capable and intelligent . . . I enjoy the interaction," he says. He also welcomes the modest $12.81-an-hour paycheck. But the great draw is health insurance that covers most of Joan's continuing treatment. "I like to work," John says. "But I am impelled to work."
The already-mandated increases in the full Social Security age -- it's 66 for those now 51 to 62, stepping up to 67 for those born after 1960 -- may accelerate the uptick in people remaining in the workforce. Many retirement experts expect Congress to raise those ages further, unpopular a move as that would be.
It's also true that certain impediments to continued work already have been eliminated. Mandatory retirement ages are gone -- with certain exceptions, like for airline pilots -- and there's no longer a prohibitive tax on income earned while receiving Social Security benefits. The traditional "defined-benefit" pensions, which actually provided lower lifetime payments for those who continued to work past retirement age, are fast receding, at least in the private sector. The "defined-contribution" plans replacing them, such as 401(k)s, don't penalize longer careers.
But are those factors enough to make 70 the new 65? The problem is, People like retirement; at least, they say they do.
How retirees actually spend the hours they used to devote to work is a subject researchers are just now tackling. Our society's "busy ethic," a phrase coined by gerontologist David Ekerdt, discourages seniors' lazing about -- just as the work ethic does for younger adults. "We exalt activity and engagement," Ekerdt says. "That's how we maintain vital identities." But the Urban Institute's studies show that it doesn't take that much busy-ness to make people happier about retirement.
Beyond 500 hours a year (about 10 hours a week) spent at "productive activities" -- defined as family caregiving, formal or informal volunteering, or paid work -- there's no additional satisfaction and sometimes a negative effect. A survey that used time diaries to track elderly adults' behavior, collected by researchers at Syracuse University and the University of Calgary, shows quite a few hours eventually shifting from work into personal care and passive pursuits like watching TV.
Still, in a large ongoing national survey called the Health and Retirement Study that began tracking retirees in the mid-'90s, about 60 percent describe themselves as very satisfied, and another big slice as "moderately" satisfied; fewer than 10 percent say they're not satisfied at all. As long as retirement is voluntary and retirees' health holds up, says economist Keith Bender of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, it's a period of contentment. There's much discussion, therefore, of what might persuade us -- or force us -- to delay it.
Maybe the boomers will stay in their jobs because they need to. Their health care costs keep soaring, and fewer employers offer health insurance for retirees. Their definitions of an acceptably middle-class life are fairly cushy; things their parents considered luxuries, like a second car or a vacation home, are now widely expected as part of "the good life," AARP surveys show. Yet many boomers haven't saved enough. "Maybe a third to a half are on track to maintaining their living standards," says Sara Rix of AARP's Public Policy Institute. "The rest, we should worry about."
Finances, then, may dictate longer work lives. Two years ago, when AARP asked people age 50 to 70 why they were working in retirement, or expected to, the most common responses were predictably upbeat: People wanted to stay mentally and physically active, to "be productive or useful" and "do something fun." When the pollsters forced them to select just one major motivation, however, the most common response became: "need money."
It's possible, too, that there's something peculiar to boomers that will lead them to behave differently from their predecessors, in retirement as in so many things. Perhaps they like their work more than previous generations. In AARP surveys, roughly 80 percent say they plan to work after retirement, most part time. "Their perception of themselves as forever young is tied to having a job," Rix thinks.
Jobs may get a lot easier to come by, too, given the projected labor shortages. The National Older Worker Career Center predicts rising wages for senior workers, along with more flexible conditions. There's also considerable interest in an approach called "phased retirement," in which experienced older workers cut back their hours and ease out of the workplace gradually, while starting to collect some pension benefits.
But skeptics wonder whether the penchant for early retirement can be reversed. Will employers, for example, really prove so welcoming, even if they're faced with shortages?
"We underestimate the amount of age discrimination that's still out there," says Laurie McCann, who litigates such cases for AARP. "The age stereotypes are so ingrained in our psyches. Rather than hire older workers, they'll import workers or offshore jobs." So if boomers do want to stay on the job, "will jobs be there?" And if they want to start a business or tackle an entirely new field, as many say they do, is that a realistic plan? Even the best projections can't answer some of these questions.
We do know that retirement is about to become markedly more complicated. The influx of women into the workforce, for instance, will shortly yield the first large-scale female exodus. But at what age? Couples will need to negotiate that: Often younger than their husbands and having spent years at home raising children, wives may not be enthusiastic about retiring at the same time as their spouses.
Finances will also grow more complex. The majority of workers with pensions, instead of merely cashing monthly checks, will have to figure out how to make those big pots of 401(k) money last 20 or 30 years. Yet the data on Americans' financial savvy are not encouraging.
In short, we are heading into unmapped territory.
The grillmeister's steaks already have been passed around when the subject of retirement arises at the Martins' barbecue.
"My thinking has certainly changed," the anesthesiologist at the end of the table declares. "When I was in my late forties, I thought, we'll retire early, we'll have plenty of money, it'll be fine." She even contemplated getting another degree, in art or geology, something new. "Now I'm not sure I can afford to play like that, with the market where it is." She's planning to practice until 65 or beyond.
"I was home with children, so I have to work till I'm 70," says a defense contract administrator. And it's true that an 18-year gap in her work history, plus a divorce, will put a dent in her Social Security income. "I could not afford my condo if I retired."
The conversation soon turns to whether retirement is such a swell idea, anyway. However chirpy people sound in surveys, anthropologists and sociologists point out that this can also be an ambivalent period, that retirees sometimes feel marginalized and isolated, experience loss as well as liberation.
The administrator remembers that when she was laid up after surgery some years back, "I didn't realize how much I'd miss just saying 'Good morning' to the person next to me" at the office.
"A bit of me says, 'Will I lose my mind?'" the anesthesiologist adds. "I can play in my garden, but how am I going to fill my intellectual needs?"
Closer to Jim at the head of the table, two other guests are debating whether Medicare will still be around when they need it.
"They won't take it away," one guy insists.
"But it'll be pared down," says the other. "People start chipping away at it. Things get dicey."
Jim doesn't say much, but as the senior person at the dinner, he certainly has thought about these issues himself, and so has Anna. At 61, her life expectancy is long; she doesn't want to outlive their savings. So she plans to teach another couple of years, but to stop short of 65. "Jim is a good travel companion, and we enjoy being together," she says. "I would like time to travel with him; I hope that's not too late."
The time-versus-money trade-off is no casual matter for those working into their seventies. Because of increased longevity, they're still likely to have years of leisure when they finally leave the workforce, but they're also more apt to encounter illness or disability than they were at 62 or 65. What is the optimal balance, enough money and enough time? When does "too late" begin?
Jim was almost 40 when his mother and father died within months of each other. As he and his sister began cleaning out their parents' Indiana apartment, they found, in a dresser drawer, a collection of small spiral notebooks in which their mother had recorded all the things she wanted to do.
"One had a list of all the movies she wanted to see," Jim remembers. "You could see where she'd marked them off -- she put a line through them -- and added new ones." She'd only gotten through about a quarter of the titles, however. Other notebooks listed the books she wanted to read and trips she wanted to take, not to terribly exotic destinations, but to Phoenix and the northern Plains, and Turkey Run State Park, which wouldn't even have required leaving Indiana. "But they would put them off, say, 'Okay, we'll go,' and then put them off. And then she died."
"It made an impression on us," Jim says, talking late one evening a few weeks after the barbecue. "It made me not want to put off things."
Portents of mortality hover around him. When he traveled back to Indiana recently for his 53rd high school reunion, 11 of his 58 classmates had died. On the same trip, he visited his 74-year-old sister; she's very ill. For that matter, he's still trying to come to grips with the fact that, while it causes him no discomfort and currently requires no treatment, he does have cancer. "Why did I get leukemia, and what am I supposed to do with it?" he wonders. "There's something I'm supposed to learn from this. I don't know what it is, exactly."
So perhaps he shouldn't defer the things he wants to do.
Yet what kept his working-class parents from visiting Phoenix or seeing more movies, he suspects, was lack of money. In continuing to earn and save, he may be doing the right thing, after all. Right now, he'd rather be able to afford Europe in the spring, he says, than learn Spanish or paint.
In a couple more years, he might feel otherwise. At 73 or 74, he can see himself scaling back to a three-day week. Until then, the watercolors can wait.
Paula Span (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Magazine contributing writer.