Retirement needs a new story
Anne Bell, a recently-retired researcher at the University of Northern Colorado, spent one of her first years after retirement volunteering with the 5280 Fellowship, a leadership program for young professionals in Denver. Bright and soft-spoken, wearing dark-rimmed glasses that match her innate curiosity, she confessed one day to a group of early career professionals, “I’m really searching for what I’m called to,” she confessed, wiping a tear from her check. “I just want to know what’s next.”
The world is undergoing a massive demographic shift. Nearly 80 million baby boomers will retire in the next 20 years, at a rate of nearly 10,000 per day. By 2035, Americans of retirement age will exceed the number of people under age 18 for the first time in U.S history. Globally, the number of people age 60 and over is projected to double to more than two billion by 2050.
But today a growing number of baby boomers — both Christians and their neighbors — are discontent with current cultural assumptions about retirement.
Decoding the Culture of Retirement: Three Postures
Retirement is an idea with a history. And to understand our purpose, we first need to understand the culture surrounding retirement and the stories that shape our perceptions about work, rest, age, and meaning.
The history of retirement began in America around the idea of a never-ending vacation. Using that theme, here are three postures toward retirement that dominate headlines today:
Let’s vacation. Today, the dominant paradigm of retirement is about vacation – how to afford it, and then how to spend it. A Google search for the word retirement shows articles, ads, and tips on how to save enough money for retirement, and a host of books on how to enjoy it: How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free, 101 Fun Things to Do in Retirement, and Design Your Dream Retirement. Retirement gifts follow suit: a coffee mug that reads “Goodbye Tension, Hello Pension.” A kitchen wall-hanging with the acronym for R.E.T.I.R.E says Relax, Entertain, Travel, Indulge, Read, Enjoy. The wine glass that reads, “I can wine all I want. I’m retired.”
I’ve been good long enough, so goes the train of thought. Time to let loose and enjoy life. I deserve a vacation.
I can’t afford to vacation. If the dominant paradigm for retirement today is a never-ending vacation, the fastest growing group of retirees are those who know they can’t afford to vacation.
He’s not alone. The economic problems facing most Americans at retirement are mounting. The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College estimates that 52 percent of Americans may not be able to maintain their standard of living in retirement, which it defines as an income not more than 10 percent below the replacement rate (65-85 percent of their previous income). To make that concrete, the average retirement assets of those aged 50-59 in 2013 were just $110,000, yet they need $250,000 just to generate $10,000 in annual income.
If the great American dream is “financial freedom” in a blissful retirement, the great American frustration is that such a dream is out of reach for the majority.
Vacation isn’t as satisfying as world-changing. Quickly pushing out the Let’s vacation paradigm is a widespread movement toward “encore careers.” Led by the talented Marc Freedman, author books like of Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life and Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America, the story about retirement is shifting away from leisure toward social entrepreneurship and civic engagement.
But there are three weaknesses to this movement. First, it often overlooks the realities of aging. Backs ache. Bodies change. Funerals become a regularity. Time changes us all.
Second, baby boomers are human (like all of us) — which means they are beautiful yet flawed. Saying that the boomer generation is a great solution to our social ills belies what we know about ourselves. We’re deposed royalty, says Blaise Pascal, and when we’re honest, we’re drawn to greed as much as generosity, sloth as much as diligence, cowardice as much as courage.
The third problem with movements that stress social change as a story for retirement has to do with the human longing for purpose. Over a generation ago, Bob Buford wrote the best-selling book Halftime, which coined the phrase “from success to significance.” I asked Fred Smith, the president of The Gathering, an annual conference for Christian philanthropists, what he thought about the idea of significance. “It’s like drinking salt water,” he said. “Looking for significance from external things is still competing for somebody else’s ‘OK.’ It just leaves you thirsty.”
The motivation behind our service is critical. If it’s merely to solve social issues, we will always find more issues to solve and that we have never done enough. Ironically, the same exhausting treadmill from our careers can follow us into “more meaningful” work.
Ethel Percy Andrus, the founder of the American Association of Retired Persons (now just AARP) established the organization’s motto as “To Serve, Not to Be Served.” If we listen carefully, in the world’s largest nonprofit organization we can still hear the echoes of one who “gave his life as a ransom for many.”
Retirement needs a new story. Or better yet, a very old story.
Wisdom and Blessing
Gary VanderArk is a not-so-retired physician living in south Denver. In his late 70s, he continues to teach five classes of medical students at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center, serve on nearly a dozen nonprofit boards, and bike almost 20 miles a day. He was also the founder of Doctors Care, a nonprofit that has helped thousands of Colorado’s medically underserved.
If anybody has a “right” to hang up his cleats and slow down, it’s VanderArk. Yet when I interviewed him about what motivates him, he said with a broad grin, “Well, I believe it’s more blessed to give than to receive. I’m enjoying myself too much to stop.”
White hair, bony fingers, and frail voice, to some VanderArk may seem “old.” But when you speak with him, he seems almost carefree, like a child on Christmas morning. He acknowledges human frailty and death, yet keeps serving others as if death is of no concern to him. He keeps teaching and sitting on nonprofit boards not because of social duty, but instead out of sheer delight. He is quick to listen and slow to speak. His words hold genuine gravitas. He is like “the righteous [who] flourish like a palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon…They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green,” (Ps 92:12-14).
George MacDonald once wrote, “Old age is not all decay. It is the ripening, the swelling of the fresh life within that withers and bursts the husk.” This is Gary VanderArk.
VanderArk, like many of God’s people through the ages, isn’t living in a story that culminates on the seventh day, the traditional Jewish day of rest. The story he lives in culminates on Sunday morning. It is the first day of the week. It’s the dawn of a new world.
“What am I going to do with my retirement?” asks Bell, and a generation of baby boomers entering into a new phase of life. To answer that question, the first thing to do after retirement is not to travel, volunteer, or find a new career.
What’s most needed after a lifetime of work (and often toil) is to take a season of deep sabbath rest.
Editor’s note: This article is an adapted excerpt from Jeff Haanen’s book, An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life.Topics: Christian Life, Rest and Leisure, Retirement