A few weeks ago, in a column about people’s pathetic lack of financial planning, I stated that if everybody had a little more forethought there would be fewer 70-year-olds working because they had to. Some readers took me to task for this, since many 70-year-olds work because they want to. Fair enough. I didn’t mean to insinuate that all employed 70-year-olds are only there because they’ve worked the slots a little too much. I only meant to say that some of them are.
But the whole kerfuffle got me thinking about the nature of retirement today. According to demographic researcher Murray Gendell, a retired man in 1950 could expect to live twelve years. Today he’ll enjoy eighteen years. A retired woman is likely to have almost twenty-two years ahead of her after that last official paycheque, nine more years than in 1950. Retirement is becoming an increasingly significant portion of our lives.
Now speaking as one from that forgotten generation that came after the Mighty Baby Boomers, the idea of so many retiring at once scares the living daylights out of me. We’re being asked to fund massive government benefits to our parents’ generation, which has more disposable income, more wealth, and more of just about everything than we do. We look at that demographic chart and realize that that bulge ahead of us is going to treat the CPP like it’s their own personal soup, salad, main course, and dessert, maybe leaving us the roll and one little half-eaten packet of butter. Politicians tell us that roll will be like Jesus using the five loaves to feed the five thousand: it will be more than enough to go around. We don’t buy it. So economically, I hope many Boomers will continue to work in some fashion. We’re going to need your productivity and your experience.
The common image of retirement, though, isn’t of work at all. It’s when we can finally relax and concentrate on ourselves! Again, from my generation’s perspective it seems that those of you who are Boomers have already done a lot of caring about yourselves. You were the “Me” generation—you threw off the constraints of your parents, abandoned traditional values, started the sexual revolution and caused the divorce rate to creep up, having major repercussions for my generation. As a cohort, you changed the culture away from the responsibility of your parents, who endured the Depression and won the War, and towards hedonism. Here’s your chance to turn it back.
Retirement offers every one of us that priceless opportunity to examine our lives and see whether or not we have met our goals, because it is our last chance to make the impact we want to have. Now before you jump all over me because the cruise tickets are just bought, hear me out. I am not saying you can’t take vacations (I plan on taking many!); only that the focus of our lives really needs to be bigger than that.
How much better to say that this is the time that I will spend to make a difference in my family, my community, my world. My mother has committed most of her 60s to a group of rescued teenage girls in Kenya, working in Canada to raise money and other practical support for them. My former neighbour, now retired from retirement, joined the community hospice. Another friend and her husband became instrumental in reviving a small country church. My friend Cork retired from his professional hospital job to get a community radio station off the ground. His mother Gladys, who is well into her 90s, has made it her mission in life to bring a smile to the faces of those who live in her new retirement home. They’re all focused on others.
Retirement doesn’t mean your usefulness has ended. Quite the contrary: given our increased health as a nation, it means that in all likelihood you can be even more useful because now most of your financial obligations are met, and your family is grown. You can really follow your dreams, at least for a few years. There’s never been a better time to grow old, and I’m looking forward to it. After all, it’s better than the alternative.