Reframing retirement: Living with purpose after your career

In this retirement series, we are exploring various aspects of the faith, work, and economics movement for retirees. How do you pastor those within your pews each week who are not only no longer compensated for work within office walls, but who also face some of life’s most difficult questions about mortality and the sorrow aging often accompanies? If you missed the first two articles in the series, you can find them here and here

Baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, are heading into retirement at an unprecedented rate. Data indicates that on average, 10,000 baby boomers retire every day.[1] Recent research also suggests that the average baby boomer is expected to live, at least, until age 84.[2] Couple those two realities together, and what you have is a generation of people who are retiring and will live for another 20 years. The implications of these truths are massive for Christians and churches.

Retirement reality

The norm in American culture is to spend your working life looking forward with great anticipation to retirement. The cultural narrative that is communicated explicitly and implicitly is that if you work hard, day in and day out for more than 40 years, you will eventually attain perpetual seasons of rest, recreation, and leisure. The idea conveyed is that once you turn 65, you can “clock out” and spend the rest of your days playing golf, traveling the world, and enjoying your grandkids. That narrative is appealing, inviting, and alluring. Regretfully, as baby boomers are retiring at an unprecedented rate, many are finding that the reality of retirement is not as satisfying or as fulfilling as they one believed it to be.

Forbes magazine reported that more than 40% of retirees suffer from clinical depression, while six out of 10 report a decline in health.[3] After spending more than 40 years working hard and awaiting all the benefits of retirement, why do many struggle with the transition to this next phase of life? U.S. Senator Ben Sasse, in his recent book, The Vanishing American Adult, cites the work of Arthur Brooks to explain this conundrum. Sasse writes, “. . . there are four key drivers of what Brooks calls our ‘happiness portfolio.’ Somewhat surprisingly, none of the four are related to material abundance. These are the central variables that emerge from Brook’s research:

  • Faith: Do you have a framework to make sense of death and suffering?
  • Family: Do you have a home life with mutual affection, where the good of others is as important to you as your own happiness?
  • Community: Do you have at least two real friends who feel pain when you suffer and share joy when you thrive?
  • Work: Perhaps most fundamentally, when you leave home on Monday morning, do you believe that there are other people who genuinely benefit from the work you do? Is your calling meaningful? Not: ‘Is it fun or well-compensated?’—but rather, ‘Does it matter?'”[4]

In summary, faith, family, friendship, and work are all vital to happiness and fulfillment in life. For the purposes of this article, it is important to note that meaningful work is a critical factor related to personal satisfaction. Sasse highlights throughout the book that it is production and not consumption that makes people happy. In other words, human beings were created to work, to produce, to contribute. Work has always been a part of God’s creative purposes for humanity. Kenneth Matthews highlights the God-given nature of work when he writes, “In the garden God gives the man a purposeful existence that includes overseeing his environment. Work is a God-given assignment and not a cursed condition.”[5] Work is God-given, meaningful, and provides humanity with purpose.

The modern American emphasis on an extended retirement that is devoid from meaningful work leads many to feel restless, empty, and unfulfilled. The late Ralph Winters lamented what he referred to as the “Retirement Booby Trap.” He wrote, “Most men don’t die of old age, they die of retirement. I read somewhere that half of the men retiring in the state of New York die within two years. Save your life and you’ll lose it. Just like other drugs, other psychological addictions, retirement is a virulent disease, not a blessing.”[6] The irony is that so many anticipate getting to the retirement stage only to find it disappointing, dissatisfying, and in the process, long for the purpose and meaning that they found in their work prior to retirement.

So, how are Christians and churches to think about this reality? Should we just resign and accept the fact that retirement will never be more than a prolonged period of consumption without much meaningful production? Or is it possible to revive, reframe, and accentuate the God-honoring and kingdom-impacting opportunities that exist for retirees? I am convinced that God has provided a host of life-giving and fulfilling opportunities for retirees to engage in during this final season of life and ministry.

Reframing retirement

Retiring from a more traditional form of work can present entirely new opportunities and possibilities. Retirees possess critical characteristics that few people in the workforce posses: an abundant amount of experience, wisdom, flexibility, and to varying degrees, financial stability. Those qualities and characteristics are valuable assets. They enable retirees to continue contributing in a meaningful way to society, and more specifically, to the mission of God around the world. Retirees have the ability to leverage their wisdom, experience, and flexibility for the sake of good. There are opportunities globally that allow retirees to continue to engage in meaningful work long after their “work career” is complete. In some cases, it may be that the work done after retirement is more fruitful and lasting than the work done prior to retirement in the so-called “prime” years of their career.

Many retirees who step out of the workforce today do so in great health and with a strong sense of vitality. These realities result in many retirees being primed and prepared for life’s next challenge or adventure. John Piper writes, “Millions of Christian men and women are finishing their formal careers in their fifties and sixties, and for most of them there will be a good twenty years before their physical and mental powers fail. What will it mean to live those final years for the glory of Christ? How will we live them in such a way as to show that Christ is our highest Treasure?”[7] Piper poses a question that retirees must wisely consider. Furthermore, Piper’s question highlights the unique opportunity that retirees have in their final season of life and ministry. God is not honored when the wisest, most experienced, and financially stable people are sitting on the “sidelines.” He desires to use these people to accomplish his purposes and overarching mission in the world.

Re-engaging in retirement

Today, unprecedented opportunities abound for retirees (all of ages) to engage meaningfully in God’s mission. I would argue that retirees, not millennials, are positioned and poised to make the greatest impact for the Great Commission in the next two decades. The Great Commission does not recognize any official retirement age. Contrary to popular belief in the Western World, the older generation has much more to offer in terms of Great Commission impact than the younger generation at this point in time. Around the world, there is a great and urgent need for mature and seasoned disciples of Christ to join missionary teams, providing wisdom and experience and modeling a Christ-honoring life in a cross-cultural context.

Uncle Sam, 401ks, and Roth IRAs can support a retired couple in Malaysia or Madagascar just as well as it could in Mississippi or Michigan. In fact, the International Mission Board (IMB) recently launched a pilot program called the Global Cities Initiative[8] that specifically encourages retirees to consider joining a missionary team in a global city. The goal is that these retirees would bring much needed wisdom and experience that would enable these teams to reach new segments and domains of culture. Furthermore, these retirees would be significant assets in discipling younger team members, modeling the Christian life, and using their specific gifts and skills to advance the mission in some of the most spiritually needy places on the planet.

There is a need for a reframed understanding of retirement. Borrowing from a sports analogy, retirement does not necessitate a move from the field to the sidelines. No, retirement, simply implies a change of position on the field. Christians who are retired or will be retiring soon have a unique opportunity to re-engage in the mission of God in the world in new and purposeful ways. As baby-boomers and others step into the retirement stage of life, may they embark on some of the most fruitful and productive work of their lives for the glory of God.

This article originally appeared in the Ethics and Religious Liberty’s  Light Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 2.


[1]https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2014/07/24/do-10000-baby-boomers-retire-every-day/?utm_term=.9a474d274a1e

[2] http://www.cleveland.com/datacentral/index.ssf/2014/10/us_life_expectancy_for_65-year.html

[3] https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikelewis/2013/10/22/life-after-retirement/#4067ba631677

[4] Benjamin E. Sasse, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming of Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017).

[5] Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1–11:26, NAC (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1996), 209.

[6] Ralph Winter, “The Retirement Booby Trap,” Mission Frontiers 7 (July 1985): 25.

[7] http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/getting-old-for-the-glory-of-god

Topics: Christian Life, Reframing Missional Strategy, Retirement

About the Author

Paul Akin is the senior aide to International Mission Board president David Platt.