Did you know that 10,000 people had their 65th birthday today? Baby boomers encompass the largest generation in American history, and they are reaching the age of retirement at a rate of just about 10,000 folks per day. With a huge number of people celebrating this milestone every day, it’s time to revisit what “retirement” is really about – because it’s time for an update.
The History of Retirement
The idea of using the 65th birthday as life’s “finish line” was established in the middle part of the 20th century. Prior to 1900, the concept of retirement didn’t even exist in American culture. Back then, if you were still alive by the time you turned 65, the odds were good that you were still working. In fact, in the year 1880, 75 percent of all living workers were still employed when they were 65; while today, only 19 percent of 65-year-olds are working. In 1935, President FDR signed the Social Security Act, and with the stroke of a pen, the modern concept of “retirement” was created, and our society decided that people shouldn’t work past 65.
From that point on, once you turned 65, you were cycled out of the workforce, which also meant you were classified as “old,” no matter your health or mental acuity. Instead, you would withdraw and rest, saving your vitality for as long as you could. Crucially, you would shift 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 life expectancy – but without a corresponding change in the retirement age. Back in 1935, most Americans who reached age 65 would be rewarded with a year or two of rest and relaxation from work. Today, an American reaching 65 may experience a 20 or 30-year period of retirement. As the first generation to experience this longevity coupled with retirement, there is no cultural blueprint for what you are supposed to do during this time, and there are no markers of progress – a new job, the birth of a child, a graduation, a first home, or a wedding.
In a recent study, respondents were asked to offer the words they associate with the stage of life after age 65. The results indicated that the 27 most-frequently-documented words accounted for over 50 percent of all responses. Considering that an average American is estimated to have a vocabulary size larger than 40,000 words, it seems clear that we are “at a loss for words” to describe what 30 years of not working will look like – because no generation in history has ever done that before.
We need a new blueprint. We need to figure out the best way to spend 30 years of freedom and to account for the challenges we may face with extended longevity.
Write Your Own Story
Right now, retirement planning really means financial planning, saving and investing enough money to afford rest and relaxation. However, we need a new definition. While most of the issues faced in this time of life have financial aspects, our quality of life will be dependent on so many other factors:
- Where will we find purpose if we stop working?
- How will our family dynamics change?
- Where will we live for the long term, and is our choice supportive of our desired quality of life?
- What will happen to our social network and connections as we age?
- How will we maintain our health?
- Who will we trust to provide caregiving when we grow old enough to need help?
The challenges and opportunities are many. If you are not prepared, you might find yourself losing control of your own quality of life. It’s time to write your own retirement story.
Good stories are constructed with 5 basic elements. These fundamental building blocks are necessary in creating a compelling narrative. The one you write about the rest of your life needs to be compelling to you!
The protagonist of this story is you, of course. So, how will this main character act, and what will he or she do? How you see yourself down the road shouldn’t be shaded by how someone a certain age acts or your perception of what a retired person should do. You, and perhaps your significant other (the co-star of your story), can be whoever you want. The other people you know will play a continuing role in your life as your supporting cast, and you may meet new characters too. Who do you want to remain in your close personal network, and what characters don’t get a part in the story?
Where will it all take place? Is it simply a continuation of where your current story is set? Do you make a break and set it somewhere else? You may want to move to that location where you’ve always wanted to live. There is no right or wrong answer for this one. Think about what will work best for you and your family.
What will you do with your days? Maybe your life changes and maybe it doesn’t. You can go on working as long as you want or need to these days. But when you begin to take more time for yourself, do you know what you’ll want to focus on and how you’ll fill your days?
Every story has an obstacle the hero must overcome. Understanding the potential conflicts in your own story will help you know what you must prepare for in the days ahead. Is it making sure you have sufficient retirement income to last the remainder of your life? Will it be health issues that you have to tackle? Whatever those main struggles will be, try to identify them to help move your narrative forward.
When this next chapter nears its conclusion, what will you have achieved? Are there places in the world you have yet to see? What else is on the bucket list that you’ll want to make happen? Knowing your desired ending can help you work backwards to piece together the path to get there.
Aging unfolds differently for everyone. We all enter the process at unique starting points and then proceed through a wide variety of psychological, emotional, and physical experiences at rates that vary from person to person. There is no “normal” way to live your life. Your retirement years may last 8,000 or more days, so it is wise to think about exactly how you’ll spend that time.