Let’s face it, forty years ago retirement pretty much meant the end of the road was near enough to see. You basically left the working world behind and settled in your recliner to await the arrival of the Grim Reaper. Sure, maybe you did some gardening and made up for all the golf you missed during your productive years, but by and large you worked at play.
In 1980, average life expectancy was only 70 for men, so guys, you didn’t have that much time left anyway. Grandma, whose life expectancy was 77, crocheted a few more blankets and baked a few more cookies, but no one expected her to contribute much. I don’t know who invented that whole Golden Years deal, but I’m convinced it was really a marketing ploy to shuffle us off to our recliners. Think I’m kidding? Read on.
The idea of paid retirement is a relatively modern concept. Conceived by Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck of Germany at the end of the nineteenth century, it was a sop he threw to the masses in an effort to hold off the Marxists. It worked. But along the way, Von Bismarck also established the precedent that government should pay people for growing old, and he set the world standard for the exact year when old age begins: 65. Which worked just fine back then because almost no one lived to that age.
Jump ahead to 1935, the height of the Great Depression in this country. Unemployment was at record levels and guess what? Older people who didn’t want to quit working were taking jobs from younger individuals with families to support. And so the Social Security Act of 1935 was born. Unlike Von Bismarck’s giveaway program, however, employees in the U.S. pay into the Social Security system during their working years and collect the benefits upon retirement.
Apparently the whole retirement gig took a little getting used to. After all, that first generation of retirees had grown up figuring they’d work until they were unfit to do so, just as their parents had. But suddenly they had time—a whole lot of time—on their hands. Fortunately, golf courses sprung up in record numbers, movie theaters began featuring afternoon matinees, and five o’clock dinners became the norm. Sounds boring, right? Just remember, it didn’t last that long.
The landscape of aging changed gradually; by 2003 male life expectancy reached 74 and females hit 80. Less than 15 years later, most of us know quite a few people in their nineties and at least a handful who’ve lived to a 100 or more. If life were a football game, at age 65 we’d hear a buzzer signaling the start of the fourth quarter—and a significant number of us will make it into overtime.
Barcalounger and Lazy Boy are still in business, and there are still golf courses aplenty to amuse us Baby Boomers. But what once looked pretty appealing for a five-year stint has now stretched to thirty and thirty-five years. Working at play gets old—in fact, based on recent research working at play probably makes us old.
Almost all of us Boomers agree that we’re younger than our parents were at our current ages. Better nutrition, medical advances, and education all play a role in that. In my mother’s day, the bad hip I had replaced last year would have made that recliner a good option. Today, I hike and walk three-plus miles daily, a fourth-quarter activity I expect to keep up for decades to come.
Which brings up another point: hardly a day goes by that we don’t see something about how to keep our minds sharp. Neuroscientists tell us that crossword puzzles (completed while sitting in our recliners) and computer games like those touted by Lumosity are not the ticket to maintaining brain function. What revs up our brains is learning new and challenging activities—the key words being new and challenging. Findings suggest that digital photography scores high, as do learning to play an instrument and dancing. Volunteering or public service of some kind also seems to help, mainly because we’re engaged with others in the wider world.
So what’s a retired Boomer to do for the next thirty or forty years? There are almost as many answers as there are of us, and that’s saying something. According to the National Institutes on Aging, the 85-and-over population is projected to increase 351 percent between 2010 and 2050. That increase is almost unimaginable, and it’s certainly uncharted waters as far as humanity is concerned. It also presents those of us in that category with a scary question: will our money run out before all the sand falls through the hourglass?
Many of us—my husband and I included—have decided we can’t afford and don’t want to quit working. But neither do we want to keep running on the same wheel we’ve been on for the last forty years. We’ve stepped off into a new world, one we knew nothing about five years ago (more about that next month). And as we look around at our peers, it seems obvious that the old notion of retirement as lots of golf and leisurely lunches no longer fits. It’s time for a retirement reboot.