What Is Retirement?

What Is Retirement?“My parents didn’t want to move to Florida, but they turned sixty and that’s the law.”

– Jerry Seinfeld on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson

What is retirement? For years it had a very specific image in popular culture: you reached your 60s, stopped working and moved the Sunshine State.

Of course, that portrait was never fully accurate. But now, in the age of disappearing financial safety nets, longer life spans and changing personal interests, it feels even more cliche.

Many of today’s retirees have very different views on work, life and play than their parents and grandparents. That’s not to say that some don’t move to Florida or take up golf.  However, it does mean that there is no longer a one-size-fits-all definition. These days the concept of “retirement” is quickly and fundamentally changing.

Evolving Work, Evolving Play

“Retired is being twice tired, I’ve thought / First tired of working, / Then tired of not.”

– Richard Armour, Going Like Sixty; A Lighthearted Look at the Later Years

The technical definition of “retirement” is the period after a person stops working. However, increasingly many “retirees” are continuing to work, both full-time and part-time. In 2012 it was estimated that 7.2 million Americans 65 years or older were still employed, a 25 percent increase from 15 years earlier.

Much of this jump was due to necessity. The disappearance of pensions, diminishing returns on investments and a failure to save enough has led many to extend their time working. According to one study,three quarters of all near retirees (ages 50 to 64) have less than $30,000 put away for retirement — not enough to stop earning income anytime soon.

Longer life spans have also been a major factor. In 1960 the average American life expectancy was 69 years. In 2010, it was 79 years and climbing — meaning that retirees now need much larger nest eggs.

For many, though, the decision to keep working has been as much about desire as need. Thanks to medical advances and lifestyle changes, today’s retirees are healthier and more active than previous generations. Often they enjoy working and see no reason to stop.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re continuing to do the exact same thing as before. In fact, it often means less work or different work. Many retirees choose to scale back their hours, working part-time or even seasonally. A large number even switch careers completely, seeking out new challenges and rewards.

Beyond work, the upcoming generation of retirees also has different ideas on everything from health to hobbies. Del Webb, a company that develops adult communities, surveyed Baby Boomers on their thoughts on retirement in 2010 (link). Here are a few highlights:

  • Boomers feel much younger than their actual ages due to their “mental attitude.”

  • Over half of all Boomers exercise regularly, and many feel that they are “in better shape” as they get older.

  • New hobbies and multiple interests are key to Boomer happiness.

  • One-third of Boomers have pursued additional educational opportunities.

  • Volunteerism is extremely important to Boomers.

Which raises the question: if someone feels young and plans on working, exercising, learning and volunteering indefinitely — what exactly makes them “retired”?

The Next Life Stage

“There is a whole new kind of life ahead, full of experiences just waiting to happen. Some call it ‘retirement’, I call it bliss.”

– Betty Sullivan, journal entry

The developmental psychologist Erik Erikson theorized that people have eight distinct life stages. Put very simply, the seventh stage, “Middle Adulthood” (40 – 65) is about nurturing things like children and careers while the eighth, “Maturity” (65+), is about reflection and fulfillment.

While Erikson’s buckets aren’t an exact fit, the broad idea of life stages may be useful for defining modern “retirement”. Perhaps these days retirement may simply mean a new chapter, a different mental state, rather than a specific age or income source.

When these “next chapters” start and what they look like may be increasingly varied. Retirement could mean volunteering in Nepal for some, while for others it may be about spending time with grandchildren. It may mean moving or staying put, working or not working. Retirement may no longer have a single definition — it may just have millions of individual interpretations.

Photo by Commander Applebery via Flickr.