The baby boomers, the largest generational group in American history until this year, are currently reaching that magic “retirement age” (65) at a rate of approximately 10,000 folks per day. In honor of the milestone, lets revisit the concept of “retirement.”
The idea of using the 65th birthday as the finish line for working life was established in the mid-20th century. Prior to 1900, the concept of retirement didn’t exist in American culture. Back then, if you were still alive by the time you turned 65, the odds were that you were still working. Interestingly, although our current culture views people over 65 as too old to work, back in the year 1880, 75 percent of all living workers were still employed when they were 65. In America today, only 19 percent of 65-year-olds are working.
In 1935, President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into existence, which included a provision for the support of “the elderly,” defined as Americans over the age of 65. With the stroke of his pen, the modern concept of retirement was created, and our society decided that people shouldn’t work past age 65. This didn’t happen because people of that age were too old and feeble to work – after all, most 65-year-olds were still working just 50 years earlier. This happened largely because business, industry, and the government wanted to justify moving older workers out of the workforce to make space for younger workers, so they created an official retirement age.
From 1935 on, once you turned 65, you were cycled out of the workforce. No matter your health, and no matter how sharp your mind, all you could hope for was to take a step back and rest, saving your vitality for as long as you could. Because you could no longer work, “old age” changed you from an economic producer to a consumer.
In the 85 years since the Social Security Act was signed, Americans have experienced a dramatic increase in the quality of their healthcare, and a resulting burst in life expectancy – but without a corresponding change in the paradigm that forces us into retirement at age 65. Back in 1935, most Americans who were lucky enough to reach 65 would be rewarded with a few years of rest and relaxation from work. Their life expectancy was only a few more years. Today, an American couple reaching age 65 has more than a 50 percent chance that one of them will live to 95, potentially experiencing a 30-year period of retirement.
So, given that retirement is typically much longer than it once was, how do people today view that period of life? The Age Lab at MIT recently conducted a survey of 990 adults to evaluate this. In the survey, respondents were asked to offer the words they most associate with the stage of life after 65. The study found one word that was by far the most common description of life after work: relax. But can you spend 30 years just relaxing?
With an increase in our retirement years, there’s much more to consider beyond relaxing. How do we keep up with our housework, manage our finances, cope with the loss of our day-to-day professional lives, and so much more as our mental and physical health declines?
I was thrilled to take a trip to Boston to the MIT Age Lab this month for a day of meetings with the Lab’s Chief, Dr. Joe Coughlin. We spent a fascinating day exploring this broken paradigm of retirement, as well as several other aspects of aging in America.
I took a ride in “Miss Daisy,” a high-fidelity driving stimulator that allows you to experience what it feels like to drive a car with the cognitive distraction, disease and medication effects, and reduced sensory awareness that may accompany older age.
I also met Agnes, an “age simulation suit” that is designed to help us better understand the physical challenges associated with aging. Agnes has been calibrated to approximate the motor, visual, flexibility, dexterity, and strength of a person in their mid-70’s.
Dr. Coughlin and I both agree that our culture’s thinking about “retirement” and “old age” are completely outdated in this country, and that the coming wave of baby boomers is about to reshape this period of life in a major way.
This is why I wrote my latest book, Exploring: Replacing An Outdated Paradigm For The “Retirement Years” And Exploring a New Phase of Life. I want to help provide a clear vision of retirement – the “Exploring” years – in hopes of helping people to better plan for and anticipate what is likely to come.
I’m excited to share that the book is available now. This is a must-read for anyone who is approaching this stage of life, or for those who have loved ones who are navigating the complexities of these years. I hope you enjoy it and find it helpful. You can get your own copy here.