Connie Parker of Annapolis thinks of herself as a standard bearer for the baby boom -- the "everything will be different when we get there" generation. And now getting there means life after 50, 60 . . . all the way to 100 and beyond.
"We are all going to have to reinvent the way we work . . . interact and live with each other," says Parker, 53, a partner in an international funds company. When the boomers hit this new stage in the life cycle, she predicts, "they will do it with the same zeal and sheer force in numbers with which they flocked to Woodstock, burned their bras and embraced the Beatles and the Stones."
Well, it's good that boomers want to reinvent themselves and do things differently than their parents -- because they have no choice.
Especially when it comes to another R-word: retirement. The economy won't let them have the brochure dream of the golden years -- a life of leisure financed largely by retirement funds and pensions. That's old-think retirement. There's simply not enough money in these funds to finance such a scenario.
Most people are going to have to work past the age of 65 -- if they can find a job.
"It could be a train wreck," says financial analyst Cynthia Hayes, first vice president of employer plan retirement solutions at Merrill Lynch. "It's time to change how we talk about retirement . . . . We've got to start positioning those bonus years as productive years. Otherwise we're going to have a very angry generation. And an aimless generation."
Yet a huge gap persists between retirement mythologies and economic realities. Most people do not expect to face a financial crisis in these years, according to a new survey of more than 1,000 men and women aged 25 to 69. The study, conducted by researchers at the Society of Plan Administrators and Record Keepers for the Merrill Lynch Retirement Group, surveyed attitudes, income and savings. The average age was 46; the median household income was $55,000.
About half think they will have saved enough money to live on in retirement. A third expect no change in income or lifestyle.
Yet about 40 percent say they will depend on 401(k) and IRA funds as a primary source of income, and the median amount in these retirement accounts was $51,000. Only 15 percent cite a pension as their main retirement income. About 16 percent say they will depend primarily on Social Security.
Financial advisers estimate that you need $19 to $25 in your retirement account for every dollar you plan to draw out in income. To get $30,000 a year from 401(k) savings, you would need at least $570,000 in the account. And you should plan on living to 90.
No wonder more than half of those surveyed say they plan to work full time or part time after age 65.
"There's recognition that we have a crisis," says Hayes. "The first solution is to make working a desirable state, post-65 -- and create the environment to encourage that."
Connie Parker is typical of many in her generation. She's highly educated, with a master's degree in organizational development. She has a high-powered job that involves international travel. A specialist in human resources, she's worked for a number of companies. In 1990, for example, she left her banking job in Florida and moved to Virginia to work for the circus for five years. ("How many HR directors get paid for hiring clowns?" she asks.) She has one grown daughter.
She's optimistic about the next 50 years. "The people I meet are all telling me the same thing: 'The first 50 for everyone else, the next 50 for me!' "
But how are she and millions of others going to find meaningful work in a culture laced with ageism and a workplace environment that encourages early retirement?
Creating a "lifespan-friendly" workplace will involve huge changes in government and academia as well in business and volunteer services -- changes similar to the upheaval when women flooded the job market at all levels and created the need for family-friendly policies. Studies show that people want to "retire" after decades in the same job, but they want to continue to work. Many are willing to swap a steady paycheck for more control over their hours and their duties. Flextime, bridge jobs, partial retirement, episodic employment, part-time schedules, contract work, partially paid volunteer jobs are all buzzwords in a lifespan-friendly work environment.
"Employers have to rethink how to repurpose older workers," says Hayes. And workers have to rethink the purpose of retirement. "It isn't a chance to stop working. It's more a chance to have the financial freedom to work in a way that you would like," she continues.
The country has about 10 years to make significant structural changes in where we work and how we live before the baby boom wave crashes on the shores of retirement.
If we do nothing, our children will have a needy generation on their hands, with too many "greedy geezers" draining scarce resources and complaining that no one loves them when they're 64.
If we start now to build an infrastructure to support, train and use people in their bonus decades, we could tap into a vast store of expertise and imagination to help solve many of the country's problems, from school quality and family dysfunction to job stress, community violence and the breakdown of health care services.
Connie Parker feels that she is in her professional prime. She doesn't ever expect to stop working. Down the line, she may go out on her own and become an independent consultant. "I bring a lot of expertise," she says. "It would be a great opportunity to 'give back' as a consultant."
She'd like to explore other interests. "I dream about gardens and grandkids . . . book clubs and friends. When you're in your go-go years, those sorts of fun things go by the boards," she says. "I take my life in 10-year segments. Like a balloon mortgage. Was that interest well spent? Do I want to re-up? Right now, I'm so excited to be this age."
Reinvention is the medium and the message. "The boomers will not go quietly into the next phase," adds Parker. They "have never asked, 'Why?' They have always asked, 'Why not?' and now they are continuing to walk the talk as they focus on their own metamorphosis."
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