December 11, 2017

What Is Retirement?


I can assure you of one thing: retirement is not what it was for your parents, maybe even an older sibling. The environment that created the Sun City model of endless golf in a tract home under the desert or Florida sun is vanishing and not likely to return. Are there still folks who live like that and even aspire to that type of life? Absolutely, and there is nothing wrong with it if that is how you describe a satisfying retirement. But, there is a shift that is well underway.

In large part that model for retirement depended on an employer who paid you a pension and took care of your medical bills in exchange for 30 or more years of loyalty. That model depended on a system of affordable housing that would increase in value, little by little, year after year. That model depended on a banking and investment system that believed in a fair profit but managed to keep the most greedy and immoral members of its community under check or quickly disposed of. That model depended on a government that worked, compromised as needed, and understood that we are all in this together. To create a nation of a few haves and a whole bunch of have-nots was in no one's longterm interest.

That model has been severely damaged, if not shattered. Certainly, there will be an increasingly  large percentage of our citizens who have no real expectation of a standard retirement lifestyle. The financial meltdown of almost 10 years ago destroyed too many nest eggs and shredded financial plans. Working as long as possible will be essential, or even desired, by many. 

For those who do plan on retiring there has been a shift in expectations. With retirement now likely to stretch over 20 or even 30 years or more, roughly 25% or more of one's life span can occur after full time employment has ended. With better health, folks are likely to stay active and vital well into their 80's. Looking forward to just sitting in the recliner, watching TV, and puttering in the garden doesn't hold much attraction for many.

So, for those whose future holds a promise of retirement, what has it become? What is retirement now? What are the basic elements that build a satisfying retirement and are, at least to some degree, under your control?


Retirement is not the end of something. It is just a change in direction.

Originally, the concept of retirement was a vision of a life of leisure and a worry-free existence. After years of toil, it meant full time relaxing with some travel and time with the grandkids for the last decade or so of life. 

Very few of us would be satisfied with that retirement lifestyle today. As noted, we probably have two or three decades of life ahead of us. Ending full time employment means we are simply entering the next stage of our life, a stage that offers as much fulfillment and excitement as we wish it to.

Our life is made up of different phases, or stages: youth and life with parents, going away to college or moving away from home and starting our own life, starting our own family while working to support that life, and now, retirement.


Retirement is more control of your most valuable asset: Time.

During the first few stages of life most of us spend time to generate income, on relationships, social commitments, and to build a particular lifestyle that makes us happy. Control of this resource is turned over to others.

When we enter the retirement stage, we are given the opportunity to grab much of that control back. As we get older, we become much more aware of the value of time, and its rapid passing. I wrote awhile back about the odd phenomenon of weeks, months, even whole years racing by much more quickly in my 60's than they did in my 40's. As I become more aware of its value, the more quickly I seem to spend it. But retirement does gives me the opportunity to be purposeful and diligent in how I spend my time. I am more likely to eliminate time wasters from my schedule.



Retirement is freedom to explore that unique creature: You

Parts of me that are uniquely me were kept under wraps in my working years stage. During that time I used certain gifts and talents I had been given to earn a living and help raise two incredible daughters. But, I felt there was more of me waiting to emerge, I just didn't know what.

When given the time and freedom of retirement I began to experiment. I tried new hobbies. I discovered the gym. I had a brief fling at bird-watching and hiking. I wrote a travel book about Arizona. But, I was still looking. I started playing the guitar. I became a lay counselor at our church with the Stephen Ministry program. All these activities were fun and fulfilling, but some part was still itching, waiting to be scratched.

Then, I moved onto prison ministry and writing this blog and two books. When I retired 16 years ago I never would have  guessed either activity was in my future. But, that is what makes retirement so satisfying and exciting: I don't know what lies ahead but I have the opportunity to find out.

What is retirement? It is a time of your life when you can take center stage. It is when you can explore all that makes you so special, a creature who will never be duplicated. Isn't that thought incredibly exciting?


Note: if you missed the recent post about Retirement Done Differently take a look for some ideas on how this stage of your life can take on a whole new look.


17 comments:

  1. A great review of the differences in retirement expectations that people have. As you stated, retirement today and in the future is nothing like the retirement that some of our parents had with a pension and financial security. I worry that I will have more years than money. My daughter has virtually no savings except for a small 401k, lost her job six months ago, and is struggling to find another one. She will be 65 in just 20 years. I don't know what will become of her. I worry for today's Gen X cohort and for Millennials who are not aware of the 25% of their lives that may be spent in retirement. Thanks for your post.

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    1. Your daughter's situation isn't unique, I am afraid. With income stagnant for many while expenses go up, saving is not easy. Some cuts can usually be made in discretionary spending, that isn't enough to fund a 25 year period.

      I wonder if multi-generational housing will become more commonplace: the elderly, middle-aged, and younger generations living together to pool resources and take care of each other.

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  2. For awhile I felt that many/most retirees or soon to be retirees were in better shape than media articles would lead us to believe. The constant drumbeat of many older Americans having little to nothing put away struck me as far off-base, but now I am not so sure. I see more and more seniors taking jobs in retail and other areas, and while some want to do something with their time, the majority are likely doing it because they have to to make ends meet. Hopefully the followon generations will figure out a different approach to working and making money that many of the older in society were not able to do, since they were raised on working and retiring as you suggested, Bob. Otherwise we may see our once great country start to slide downhill as so many empires inevitably have over the years. Sounds pretty depressing, but as I said, hopefully the younger folks will figure out a new and better way to succeed.

    Your observation on multi-generational households is interesting. For awhile there I felt it would take off because the elderly could not financially afford to go any other route. Now we may be looking at the younger people moving in with the elderly because they (the younger) may not be able to afford any other route. Interesting times. Personally I am very thankful that we succeeded as we did, kept our noses to the grindstone pretty much our whole lives, and stayed married (one of the key prerequisites for success). And after those depressing themes, I would like to end on a happier note, wishing you and Betty and all your readers a very happy and very Merry Christmas!

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    1. Certainly, the percentage of those of "retirement age" who continue to work or return to a job has increased quite noticeably. Yes, many have to do so. At the same time, I am not sure the majority who work, start a business or turn a hobby into a money-making venture are doing it because they have to. Maybe it is because they enjoy the challenge and validation. Whatever the actual numbers are in each camp, there is no arguing that society and the economy have made retirement no longer a foregone conclusion.

      The multi-generational housing question is one that we will have to watch. I agree with you that many younger folks are in trouble. I personally know some older folks who can't afford nursing care but aren't in such poor financial shape that Medicaid is an option. That leaves them depending on their grown children. Will that become the new normal?



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  3. Almost every.single.retired.person that I know has a side gig that they utilize to make extra money. Whether it's the ladies having jewelry parties, or signing lots of people up for cruises ($100 fee for each sign up) or the guys fixing up cars, moonlighting as a greeter at Wal Mart, lecturing, tutoring.....anything to earn an extra buck or two....that's what the retirees I know are doing. They all have the same reason: they need a little extra money. And some of these people were doctors, nurses, pharmacists etc. Lawyers keep working or doing poeple's taxes etc. Those that have more money have bought rental properties and manage those for the extra monthly income.
    I have come to realize that there really isn't such a thing as retirement. I think you just keep on living and hustling along to the very end. And I'm as guilty as the lot of them.

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    1. I know a few retirees who have had to go back to work but that was due to a late-in-life divorce or widowhood. Most of those I come in direct contact are not in that position. They are fully retired.

      So, I appreciate your perspective on the issue. I will be the first to admit where I live and who I come in contact with are not representative of the whole spectrum. I see more of the complete picture in reading comments like yours on this blog.

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  4. I am one of the fortunate ones, able to retire in my early sixties, with a comfortable (but not lavish) lifestyle. Yes, I worked hard, lived frugally, invested well, and followed up on opportunities to compete for higher paying career positions. But I realize that I am one of the lucky ones. Of my three siblings, one brother who was hard working and ambitious has been impacted by health problems that prevent him from working in his field and he lives on the edge of poverty. Another sibling divorced and started a second family in his fifties and will need to work into his seventies to support them. A third never married, worked a whole career for one company that pays a pension, and was able to retire at age 55. We all shared the value of hard work, but only two of us have satisfying retirements. Of my four best friends, one has retired early at age sixty and three will remain working for years to come for financial or family reasons. Perhaps because I realize how lucky I am, I feel a bit uncomfortable with the thought that my retirement should be about indulging in myself. Like you have, Bob, I am looking for a meaningful way to continue contributing to society outside of paid employment.

    Jude

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    1. Thanks for sharing your family's and friends' stories, which are probably a good representation of the mix of retirees/wanna-be retirees. Life has a habit of messing up the best-laid plans.

      To your last point, yes. Spending all my money and time just on me and my family isn't satisfying. You used the word, indulgent, which fits well. To spend a lot of time trying to make money on this blog would mean I have less time to be involved in the world around me. To take on a paying job would mean the same thing, plus possibility filling a slot that someone else who needs the income could have taken.

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  5. Retirement really has changed along with the world. We seem to be sliding backward into the boom/bust cycles of the 19th Century, when nobody had any security at all. I guess that suits the 1% just fine. Anyway, my dad retired with an income twice my take-home from full-time work. Sadly, he was disabled at 79 and forced into retirement. He was quite bewildered with the whole thing. His care ate up everything he had in less than 10 years, even being at home most of the time.

    As a cancer survivor, I don't plan to work till age 70 and live another 30 years after that. I will quit at 65, blog, sell my crafts, and have some good times before I get too decrepit to enjoy life. Good thing, since my savings falls short of the requisite $million. And I have already lived in Florida so will stay where I am instead.

    Speaking of living arrangements, I like house plans and have noticed an upsurge of designs with suites for the grandparents incorporated into houses. There are also elders who didn't have kids or can't rely on theirs for whatever reason, and they may band together to share housing too. There's a lot to recommend it. With a roommate you can share expenses and there's someone there in case you fall or just want to talk. Living alone can be scary and lonely especially for those in declining health.

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    1. I wrote a post a few years ago about cohousing, the ability for older folks, single or married, to join together to share cooking and social times all while maintaining private living arrangements. They are there to help in health emergencies, too. I think that is a great idea whose time has come.

      In the Phoenix area there are a substantial number of "grandparent" suites or separate buildings on a grown child's property to make caring for parents easier. I know my grandkids absolutely love being so involved in our lives because they are only 5 minutes away. The chance to watch them grow and pass along life lessons helps both generations.

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  6. I think (hope) one of the ways we baby boomers may change ideas about retirement is to rethink the later decades of life from a time of decline to a time of personal growth. Your own retirement journey provides a good example about how more control over time can enable growth. -Jean

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    1. Control of one's time is the single most important determinant of the quality of retirement. Being in charge of how you spend your day affects everything, from finances to relationships, feeling fulfilled to giving back. Time management is really the glue that holds the retirement stage of life together.

      Thanks, Jean.

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  7. Well, I really don't think there is any reason to look down on retired people who live in tract homes, in sunbelt states and play golf all day. That doesn't mean they aren't contributing members of society, too. If you need to have a side gig to help your retirement, that's fine, but maybe those guys playing golf all day, don't.

    And I personally think it's absolutely wonderful that governments do help with retirement, but you have to remember that is a concept that is less than 100 years old. Before that all of mankind was on its own to save for their elder years all on their own.

    And please stop whinging about 1% ers. It's so unattractive and self involved. Just do the best that you can and stop looking at what others have.

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    1. I will leave you comment as it is. The post wasn't about what has you so upset, but maybe by venting here you will feel a little better about yourself.

      Have a nice day.

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    2. Know that any additional comments along this vein will be deleted. Readers of this blog are overwhelmingly polite, respectful, and helpful. I intend to keep it that way.

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  8. I am a different anonymous, than the one posted above. I have a vested state retirement, that increases with each year I work. I do not think anyone is whining about the 1% ers. I just think they do not understand how really poor folks live. I deal with really poor folks every day. Many have mental health issues.

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    1. The comment above you was left by an unhappy person who needs to lash out at something. Better here than while driving a car, I guess.

      As you note, and Mr. Polite above missed, no one is whining about the 1%, until laws increase their share of the total pie while cutting out the middle and lower class folks, along with making education, health, and living standards less important.

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