“We have a longevity paradox. Now that we have achieved what humankind has tried to achieve since it has walked – living longer – we really don’t have a good idea of what to do with all that additional time.”
-Dr. Joe Coughlin, Director of the MIT AgeLab
The AgeLab was established at MIT in 1999 as a multidisciplinary research program that works with businesses to improve the quality of life of older people and those who care for them. The AgeLab applies consumer-centered thinking to understand the challenges and opportunities of longevity and emerging generational lifestyles to encourage innovation across business markets. Their insights are critical for anyone who is nearing retirement, or who has loved ones such as parents, aunts, or uncles who are entering this stage of life.
Exploring Your Freedom
As we discussed in our last article, “8,000 Days,” the folks at the MIT AgeLab have developed a model to describe the distinct segments of life that most Americans experience. In this model, most of us live through four periods in our lives, which are each about 8,000 days in length, or roughly 22 years. The final period, which typically extends from age 66 to 88, is called the “Exploring” phase of life.
During this phase, our responsibilities to others begin to diminish, and we are afforded the opportunity to enjoy and explore our lifestyle more than ever before. By this time our children have grown and are on their own, our financial and professional responsibilities become easier, and we have the time and the money to take a step back and enjoy life on our own terms. People in this “Exploring” phase of life may experience various sub-phases as well. The first of these is called the “Honeymoon” phase, which is the focus of this article.
The “Honeymoon” phase is appropriately named because it marks the period of time when this whole idea of “exploring our freedom” is brand new to us. There is a feeling of excitement, possibility, and new beginning, as we look forward to enjoying life on our own terms, with reduced responsibilities. However, just as a newly married couple must navigate the issues related to transitioning from single life to living with a spouse, there are also issues of adjustment in this phase.
The primary questions that a couple in the initial stages of the “Exploring” phase of life must answer include:
- What is the role of work in our lives?
- Where will our income come from?
- What will our family dynamics look like?
This week we will focus on the first of these questions, and future articles will address the others.
Who Are You? What Do You Do?
It is interesting that the folks at the AgeLab have chosen a name like “Exploring” to describe the period of life between age 66 and 88. After all, why not just call this period your “Retirement Years”? The answer is that increasing numbers of people in this stage don’t want to “retire.” Instead, they want to have their cake and eat it too: They envision a life in which they are able to continue working in some form, but on their own terms and at their own pace.
When you walk into a cocktail party and you meet someone new for the first time, what do you talk about? Typically, the first two questions you ask about each other are:
- What is your name?
- What do you do for a living?
If you “retire,” how are you supposed to answer that second question?
By age 66, most people have spent at least 40 years working and have developed a particular level of skill in their profession. Typically, they consider their profession to be a key element of their identity, and their professional accomplishments are an important source of personal pride. Their work keeps them relevant in the world, affords an entire social network of important relationships, and may provide a wonderful source of purpose.
When we reach age 65, are we supposed to simply throw that all away, overnight, in the name of “retiring”?
For many people in this age bracket, the answer is absolutely not; they are not ready to abandon their work life so that they can go play golf every day for the rest of their lives. They do, however, want to have the opportunity to play golf a lot more than before, and the freedom to play golf whenever they want. Herein lies the first difficult challenge of the “Honeymoon” phase, which is finding a way to continue working in some form, but on our own terms. This can be a difficult search, and one that many people are ill-prepared for. This issue is rarely discussed, so many people are unprepared to deal with it.
For most, the ideal answer is to continue working in their existing profession but to simply “slow down” their pace. Some careers may allow for consulting opportunities, which can be tailored to your desired schedule. Others may choose to redirect their attention to philanthropic or board work. Still others may choose to join the “gig economy,” which is the fastest-growing source of employment for folks in this age bracket, with a full 24 percent of workers between the ages of 55 and 74 working in some form of “gig” job. Next time you hop in an Uber or tee up your next round of golf, don’t be surprised if your Uber driver or caddy is an affluent retiree who simply likes the work because it gives him the opportunity to meet new people.
Whatever the answer, the question is an important one. As we approach the “Exploring” phase of our lives, we would do well to give this issue some thought and planning. For as much as we are concerned with “How much will retirement cost?”, and issues of saving enough for our retirement, we must also be sure to consider “What will I do in Retirement?”.